Obama Reads His Mail!

The afternoon after the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama addressed a throng of reporters in the White House’s East Room. The Daily Beast reported that as the minutes wore on, Obama’s emotionless, rather flat-line responses to an obvious political thrashing provoked the press, and the session devolved into a game—who could ask a question that would goad the President into betraying some emotion at the loss of the Democratic majority?

Finally, someone asked the President if he was “out of touch,” and Obama became more pensive. He acknowledged that it could seem that way at times, but that he had a sure weapon against intellectual isolation:  10 letters. Ten is the number of letters from citizens that President Obama reads each day, from among the millions sent to the White House each year. Assuming that those letters are selected from the in-coming mail during the Department of Presidential Correspondence’s Monday through Friday work week, the President reads, on average, 50 letters from citizens each week.

This is not a terribly large number, and compared with those from previous administrations, it may even be low. But in Obama’s eyes, that staff-selected group of letters, one for approximately every 31 million citizens, or for every 100,000 monthly writers to the President, provides sufficient insight into the heart and soul of an entire nation. As Obama remarked at the November 3rd press conference, the problem was that no one could see the great effect of the letters: “but nobody’s filming me reading those letters. And—and so, it—it’s hard, I think, for people to get a sense of, well, how’s he taking in all this information.” That impression is a symbol of how truly isolated he has become.

To assert that the President of the United States believes he’s secure against charges of disengagement because of 10 simple sheets of paper seems odd, but Obama does indeed view things that way. The White House has repeatedly used the fact that the President reads a fraction of his mail as a publicity tool and a weapon against those who would accuse him of aloofness.

Since March 2009, The Washington Post has run at least two stories (one, “For a look outside presidential bubble, Obama reads 10 personal letters each day,” ran to four pages online) and The New York Times has run one story, outlining how President Obama reads his 10 letters a day, all written with full White House approval. That’s quite a lot of press coverage for an activity that every President from Washington to Obama has engaged in, and that most people would consider obvious: reading your own mail.

The peculiar counterpoint is that, for Obama, reading the American people doesn’t mean responding to them. The White House admits that Obama doesn’t reply to all, or even most, of those 10 notes. In fact, he appears to write out by hand around 5 to 15 letters a week, a handful of responses to the citizen letters he receives (among his favorite category to respond to is “destitute Americans who maintain their optimism”). Of the letters drafted for him by staff (typed letters), the number is also rumored to be extremely low, especially for a modern president. It is also in sharp contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, a prolific writer who wrote or signed hundreds of citizens’ letters weekly.

Obama’s writing habits are also bringing a strain to another surprising sector:  collectors. One of his most famous handwritten notes, a response to a Michigan woman reeling from the loss of her job and the onset of cancer, was recently sold for $7,000 (the proceeds went toward her bills). According to the buyer, professional collector Gary Zimmet, profiled in The Washington Post, the letter was valuable because it was so rare: “I have not yet see[n] one typed authentically signed letter from Obama…. He autopens everything [via machine].”

What makes all the White House publicity characterizing letter reading as a bold way of communicating with the American people rather odd is that the activity is completely precedented. Nor is reading up to 50 letters a week a new or noteworthy standard; George W. Bush read at least that many, and often more. Reagan was a prolific correspondent with the American public, developing pen pals with whom he exchanged notes for years. Clinton was also no stranger to pen and paper, and neither was George H. W. Bush. In fact, reading—and responding to—letters from the American public is a timeless, and cherished, Presidential tradition; in light of that history, it is unsurprising to learn that the largest office in the White House is Presidential Correspondence. 

Ironically, the President’s view that such a small sampling of American opinion, vetted by staff, permits him a unique insight into the concerns and wishes of the populace is itself hubristic. While in his view the 2010 elections reflect nothing more than a “communication failure,” rather than the will of the people, a mere handful of citizen letters reveals so much more to Obama’s keen eye.

So what is the value of 10 letters a day (other than PR for the President)? It seems strange to stake a claim of unique insight on what is now, and for a very long time has been, part of the job description for any American politician, especially the President of the United States. The mail is just one way of listening to the American people; elections are another. But it would appear that with this President, 10 pre-screened letters a day is the only vote we are going to get.