NEW YORK (Reuters) - Every evening President Barack Obama is handed what he calls his “homework packet,” a thin folder of 10 letters from the American people offering him an unvarnished view of the citizens he governs.
Obama asked for the unvetted correspondence on the second day of his tenure and has used them to help shape policy and to enliven his speeches with the stories of real people.
The correspondence, featured in the book “Ten Letters,” shows that America is struggling.
“The one way where Obama still has some intimate interaction with ordinary American people is through these 10 letters,” author Eli Saslow told Reuters in an interview.
“This is his one authentic place of interaction about what is going on in people’s lives,” said Saslow, who has covered the Obama White House for The Washington Post.
His book is published this week by Doubleday.
Reading the letters of ordinary Americans is not new. For decades American presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have read and responded to correspondence.
America’s first president, George Washington, received about five letters a day, opening them himself and responding to them. William McKinley hired an assistant to deal with a “flood of 100 letters” daily in the late 1800s.
Writing to the White House spiked with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the great Depression of the 1930s, when he urged listeners to “tell me your troubles.” He was deluged with 450,000 letters in the week after his first radio broadcast. President Bill Clinton received 2.26 million letters in 1998 and more than 1 million email letters.
Americans have never been shy at sharing their anger. Clinton was inundated with cigars during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President George W. Bush was mailed hundreds of shoes after an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at him.
Unlike his predecessors, Obama has formalized a process for sifting the mail and emails from the American people.
“Obama is the first president to make such a science of the process, which is typical of his personality,” Saslow said. “He has created this scientific system for the mail.”
A team of 50 junior staffers and a thousand volunteers sort about 20,000 pieces of correspondence daily by category, such as justice, unemployment, health reform or immigration, and by sentiment.
The book reveals Obama often touched by the letters and on average responding to one or two of them nightly.
Saslow said Obama told him, “The letters sometimes make him feel so powerless because these problems are so real and urgent and desperate and the act of governing is so slow that he sometimes recognizes there is nothing he can do to help.”
Saslow said Obama admitted that on a few occasions he had written a check or made a phone call to help fix someone’s problem because he felt it was all he could do.
The letters Obama receives six days a week reflect the overall mail. For example, if 20 percent of letters are from military families, he will receive two such letters in his daily packet and if 50 percent of the letters were about being jobless, five of his 10 letters will be about that topic.
Similarly, if two thirds have a negative sentiment and one third are upbeat, that will be reflected.
Most of the letters detail problems and suffering in people’s lives. Joblessness, foreclosures and economic woes make up a huge portion of the correspondence.
Still, the book is not without hope. It opens with a woman who wrote to Obama after she lost her job, her boyfriend’s business went bust and the bank foreclosed on their house. Then, days after she lost her health benefits she found out she was pregnant with her second child.
The book ends with her selling Obama’s response to an autograph dealer for $7,000 and reading his response to her one last time. “Things will get better,” Obama wrote.