Inside, Obama found crinkled notebook pages, smudged ink, cursive handwriting and misspelled words — a collection of 10 original letters that he considers among his most important daily reading material, aides said. Ever since he requested a sampling of mail on his second day in office, the letters have become a staple of his presidency. Some he immediately reads out loud to his wife; others he distributes to senior staff members aboard Air Force One. Some are from students requesting help with homework; others are from constituents demanding jobs or health care. About half of the letters, Obama said during a recent speech, “call me an idiot.”
I know some of my readers think Obama is an idiot, but in this particular case, he is one smart president. Perhaps other recent presidents have done something similar to this. Some very distant presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, made a regular point of reading and often responding to their public mail. These days with three hundred million Americans and the ability to send the president email at a whim, the president, not to mention the rest of government, is inundated with correspondence from the public. No president can or should even begin to try to read it all. However, reading ten letters a day at least keeps the president somewhat grounded in the life of ordinary Americans.
You can bet to the extent that George W. Bush read public mail at all, it was carefully filtered by staff to reinforce whatever they wanted him to hear. Otherwise, who knows, he might have learned that Iraq was not developing nuclear weapons. Yet Obama’s staff, by his order, actually gives him a representative sample of his official public mail. In a country as diverse as ours, even two friends will not agree on everything. So you can bet that what Obama is reading is often annoying and pedestrian, as well as heartfelt. In any event, if you really want to do the work of the American people, you have to know how they feel. Because Obama takes the time to read a sampling of his public mail, we learn something you cannot say about many presidents: he really does want to make sure public policy aligns with the actual needs of the American people, not what he thinks they need. Moreover, he is using what he is reading from the public is shaping policy.
What a concept! Somehow, you know that if we had gotten a President Hillary Clinton (or a President John McCain) instead of a President Barack Obama, she would not be regularly reading samplings of her public mail. Oh sure, she cares about Americans but this would never occur to her. I doubt she would be holding regular town hall meetings either. Even his critics I think would have to agree that Obama genuinely wants to hear from diverse points of view, and values input from ordinary citizens. Moreover, Obama is making conversations with citizens a part of the ordinary way he does things. It is very refreshing.
Obama, like most presidents, hears criticism that he inhabits an ivory tower. This is simply not true. Few modern presidents with the possible exception of Bill Clinton come from such ordinary roots. President Obama does not have to hear what it is like to live on food stamps. For a time, his family depended on them. He does not have to try to understand racism and multiculturalism. He grew up in a multiracial household. Some would say he came from a middle class family. It is more accurate to say he came from the working poor, which is probably where he acquired the smoking habit. He also understands how hard it is to make ends meet. It wasn’t until his first book sold well that he managed to pay off his student loans. Yet he also understands to some extent the life of the privileged and the wealthy. He worked on Wall Street early in his career.
Consequently, it should not be a surprise that he reads some of his mail and holds regular town halls. This connecting with ordinary Americans is how he has successfully navigated through life. He stays grounded in the real world, which can be almost impossible within the White House and its security bubble. It’s what is making him an effective president, and which might put him in the pantheon of great American presidents.
I hope he takes it a few steps further. One of the problems with being president is that there is no end to the demands on your time. Town hall meetings are fine, but much of the rabble is kept out by the Secret Service. He should also attend focus groups. His staff should contract with a polling firm like Gallup and have them occasionally fly in representative samples of Americans. He should invite them to the White House for focused discussions, or periodically meet groups off site in real America, say a Best Western conference room. Perhaps once a week his staff could pull some random person or family from the White House tour. He could sit down for coffee or a beer, away from cameras and the press, just to hear firsthand what their real life is like.
Many find it annoying, but what I admire most about President Obama is his ruthlessly pragmatic way of governing. It drove both sides of the political spectrum crazy during the health care debates. No side got everything they wanted, but when he finally decided to engage on health care reform, he made it happen. Despite whining from Republicans, the laws look amazingly like what Republicans like Newt Gingrich wanted enacted back in the 1990s but now decry. It’s neither left, nor right. It’s mainstream. Moreover, the more I read about the law, the more I find to admire about it. For example, employees can reduce health insurance costs by practicing preventive health care rather than reactive health care. This is not just smart; it is very smart. Not everyone will change lifestyles when given a financial incentive to do so, but many will. Over time, these sorts of strategies move mountains. Over a generation, strategies like this cut our national smoking rate from 50% of adults to about 20% of adults today.
As long as he is president, I hope President Obama continues to read those ten letters a day as well as hold regular town hall forums. This is time that is wisely invested and should be a required practice for future presidents of any party affiliation.