The letter to President Obama came from a woman in Arizona whose husband lost his job. He was able to find work, but the new gig came with one-third the pay; the family is struggling to make their mortgage payments.
The letter from the Arizona woman illustrated a policy conundrum, recalled senior adviser David Axelrod. President Obama read it, and absorbed the lesson. “She said they had made all their mortgage payments, but were running out of money,” Axelrod said. “And they were told they could not renegotiate unless they were delinquent in their payments.”
Before President Obama’s housing speech last week, he’d made copies of his letter and “sent it to his financial team and said, ‘This is the kind of person our housing plan should help,” Axelrod recalled. The president had other copies made of that letter. He had it distributed to staff on Air Force One. “He had been struck by how powerful the story was,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “He wanted us as we were creating policy to make sure that we were listening and hearing these examples as well.”
Every day President Barack Obama is handed a special purple folder. The folder contains ten letters, and every day President Obama takes time to read them. Are they from world leaders? From members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Members of the intelligence community? No, these letters have been culled from the thousands the White House Correspondence Office receives each day from Americans who have taken the time to sit down and write to their president.
“They help him focus on the real problems people are facing,” says Axelrod. “He really a absorbs these letters, and often shares then with us.” In his first week in office, President Obama requested that he see 10 letters a day “representative of people’s concerns, from people writing into the president,” recalls Gibbs, “to help get him outside of the bubble, to get more than just the information you get as an elected official.” Says Axelrod, “he did it because his greatest concern is getting isolated in the White House, away from the experiences of the American people…The letters impact him greatly.”
Some recent examples, according to aides, include a letter from a businessman who owns a manufacturing company and says he finds it very difficult to lay off employees who have done nothing wrong. If things don’t improve, the correspondent wrote, he’ll have to lay off 10% of his workforce.
Another letter came from a divorced senior citizen raising a grandchild on a fixed income, including Social Security. She confessed to being depressed and scared. A third came from a realtor who urged the president to do something about the large number of foreclosed properties. A fourth was a plea for help from an unemployed truck driver.
Monday through Friday the head of White House Correspondence delivers ten letters to be read by the President, choosing among letters that are broadly representative of the day’s news and issues; ones that are broadly representative of President’s intake of current mail, phone calls to the comment line, and faxes from citizens; and messages that are particularly compelling. Some of these, maybe two or three each day, the President responds to in his own hand.
Gibbs says that before two different economic speeches, the President “pulled letters he has gotten and distributed them to staff, to understand what people were going through.” The vast majority of the calls coming into the White House, and over a third of the faxes have been on the stimulus package and the economy, so up to half of the letters the President sees are on that broad subject.
Aides say that many of these correspondents also have other complications: bankruptcy due to health care, lost job, lost opportunities for their children. A smaller number of the letters address other issues, such as the environment, health care, education, foreign affairs, or nuclear proliferation. And a handful, usually no more than five a week, are from people who have a simple supportive message or inspirational story to tell. The head of correspondence also includes letters to the President from smaller children who ask questions or give advice. Sometimes the letters are include in the president’s overnight briefing book.
As the President addresses the immense issues the nation and world face — today the President will announce he’s appointing an inspector general to head the transparency and accountability board to supervise the stimulus spending, and will host an fiscal responsibly summit; Tuesday he will address the economy before a joint sessions of Congress; Thursday he will present his budget — the President’s aides say these letters help the president stay in touch with real people and ignore the chatter here inside the DC bubble. – jpt (Photos by White House photographer Peter Souza)