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President Barack Obama received ten thousand letters a day from his constituents. This is the story of the private and profound relationship with letter writers that shaped his presidency. Their voices combine to reveal a diary of a nation.
Every evening for eight years, at his request, President Obama was given ten handpicked letters written by ordinary American citizens—the unfiltered voice of a nation—from his Office of Presidential Correspondence. He was the first president to interact daily with constituent mail and to archive it in its entirety. The letters affected not only the president and his policies but also the deeply committed people who were tasked with opening and reading the millions of pleas, rants, thank-yous, and apologies that landed in the White House mailroom.
In To Obama, Jeanne Marie Laskas interviews President Obama, the letter writers themselves, and the White House staff who sifted through the powerful, moving, and incredibly intimate narrative of America during the Obama years: There is Kelli, who saw her grandfathers finally marry—legally—after thirty-five years together; Bill, a lifelong Republican whose attitude toward immigration reform was transformed when he met a boy escaping MS-13 gang leaders in El Salvador; Heba, a Syrian refugee who wants to forget the day the tanks rolled into her village; Marjorie, who grappled with disturbing feelings of racial bias lurking within her during the George Zimmerman trial; and Vicki, whose family was torn apart by those who voted for Trump and those who did not.
They wrote to Obama out of gratitude and desperation, in their darkest times of need, in search of connection. They wrote with anger, fear, and respect. And together, this chorus of voices achieves a kind of beautiful harmony. To Obama is an intimate look at one man’s relationship to the American people, and at a time when empathy intersected with politics in the White House.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from To Obama
It felt almost like a secret, the way Shailagh was talking about the letters; she wanted me to know how important they were, and she seemed frustrated, or perhaps just exhausted, like a soldier in some final act of surrender, tossing off the keys to the kingdom right before the village blows up.
This was October 2016. Hurricane Matthew had just rolled out to sea, Samsung phones were abruptly catching fire, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was tweeting—“Nothing ever happened with any of these women. Totally made up nonsense to steal the election. Nobody has more respect for women than me!”—and I suppose Shailagh was feeling as wistful as anyone tumbling inside the gathering awareness of sweeping cultural change in America.
She had served six years in the Obama administration, the past two as a senior advisor, and we were in her office in the West Wing, where she was reaching toward a bookcase filled with thick three-ring binders. Inside the binders were letters to Obama that dated back to the beginning of his administration. They were from constituents. Ordinary Americans writing to their president. “They became a kind of life-force in this place,” Shailagh said. She had her shoes off and a woolly sweater wrapped around her; she had a raspy voice and an unfussy Irish look, a person you might sooner find wiping the counter at a pub in Dublin than sitting comfortably across the hall from the Oval Office.
At that point Hillary Clinton was still up by double digits in the national polls, and the unthinkable was still unthinkable. Clinton campaign staffers were jockeying for position in what everyone believed would be the new administration, and Shailagh had no designs on being part of it; two terms in the White House were enough. Her job helping to lead the administration’s communications strategy was to act as the gatekeeper between Obama and the people who wrote about him, and it appeared to have taken its toll. “I will not miss the bros,” she said. With Obama just a few months away from leaving office, journalists were reaching peak bravado, she said. They wanted exit interviews; they wanted them now; they wanted to be first, biggest, loudest. She was sick of the egos, the same old questions, the lack of imagination, and Trump was tweeting, and it seemed like the world was going haywire.
The letters, she said, served as a kind of respite from all that, and she offered to show some to me. She chose a navy-blue binder, pulled it off the shelf, and opened it, fanning through page after page of letters, some handwritten in cursive on personal letterhead, others block printed on notebook paper and decorated with stickers; there were business letters, emails, faxes, and random photographs of families, soldiers, and pets. “You know, it’s this dialogue he’s been having with the country that people aren’t even aware of,” she said, referring to Obama’s eight-year habit of corresponding with the American public. “Collectively, you get this kind of American tableau.”
Obama had committed to reading ten letters a day when he first took office, becoming the first president to put such a deliberate focus on constituent correspondence. Late each afternoon, around five o’clock, a selection would be sent up from the mailroom to the Oval Office. The “10LADs,” as they came to be known—for “ten letters a day”—would circulate among senior staff, and the stack would be added to the back of the briefing book the president took with him to the residence each night. He answered some by hand and wrote notes on others for the writing team to answer, and on some he scribbled, “save.”
Everyone on the senior staff knew the importance of the letters, but Shailagh had taken an interest in the story they told in the aggregate, what they said about the country and her boss. She told me she would sometimes put her feet up and devour the material, as if it were a history project and she were a scholar intent on mastery.
“So this is January 23, 2009, right after the inauguration,” she said, choosing a letter at random from the binder. “ ‘I’m a seventy-three-year-old owner of a manufacturing company. My husband and I started from nothing . . . put every dime back into the business. We’ve had no orders or inquiries for over three months now . . . still recovering from open-heart surgery. . . . We’ve got this house. Our mortgage is nine hundred seventy-nine dollars and seventy-one cents. We still owe a hundred twenty thousand dollars. What are we going to do?’
“You know?” she said. “That kind of stuff. All these signs. Because at that point, it wasn’t clear. The job losses hadn’t really started yet. There’s page after page after page of people venting about the big banks. I mean, that’s the other thing: You see the rage. You see the terror. Just the vulnerabilities that people are feeling that so transcend at that point what the fundamentals even looked like. So right at the beginning when Obama took office, he’s hearing—he’s hearing, like, Larry Summers, the director of his National Economic Council, and then he’s hearing, you know, Francis and his wife Collette from Idaho. You know? It’s like a running dialogue with the American public.
“You know?” Shailagh said, as if she was pleading with me to get this.
I told her I did, or at least I was trying to.
“Did I tell you about the letter from the guy in Mississippi?” she asked.
No, she hadn’t.
“Oh my God—”
She stood, headed back to the bookshelf to get a different binder. “Wait till you see this one.”
Presidents have dealt with constituent mail differently over the years. Things started simply enough: George Washington opened the mail and answered it. He got about five letters a day. Mail back then was carried by foot or on horseback or in stagecoaches—not super high volume. Then came steamboats, then rail and a modernized postal system, and by the end of the nineteenth century, President William McKinley was overwhelmed. One hundred letters every day? He hired someone to help manage the flow, and that was the origin of the Office of Presidential Correspondence. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that things got crazy. In his weekly fireside chats, Franklin D. Roosevelt began a tradition of speaking directly to the country, inviting people to write to him and tell him their troubles. About a half million letters came pouring in during the first week, and the White House mailroom became a fire hazard. Constituent mail grew from there, and each succeeding president formed a different relationship with it. By the end of his presidency, Nixon refused to read anything bad anyone said about him. Reagan answered dozens of letters on weekends; he would stop by the mailroom from time to time, and he enjoyed reading the kid mail. Clinton wanted to see a representative stack every few weeks. George W. Bush liked to get a pile of ten already-answered letters on occasion. These, anyway, are the anecdotal memories you get from former White House staff members. Little hard data exists about constituent mail from previous administrations. Historians don’t focus on it; presidential libraries don’t feature it; the vast majority of it has long since been destroyed.
President Obama was the first to come up with a deliberate practice of reading ten letters every day. If the president was home at the White House (he did not tend to mail when he traveled), he would be reading constituent mail, and everyone knew it, and systems were put in place to make sure it happened. The mail had currency. Some staff members called it “the letter underground.” Starting in 2010, all physical mail was scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every word of every email factored into the creation of a daily word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at the issues and ideas constituents had on their minds.
In 2009, Natoma Canfield, a cancer survivor from Medina, Ohio, wrote in, detailing her staggering health-insurance premiums in a letter Obama framed and had hung in a corridor between his private study and the Oval Office: “I need your health reform bill to help me!!! I simply can no longer afford to pay for my health care costs!!” It stood in for the tens of thousands of similar letters he got on the healthcare issue alone. They saw spikes in volume after major events like the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Charleston, South Carolina; the Paris terrorist attacks; the government shutdown; Benghazi. You could see these spikes in the word clouds. “Jobs” might grow for a time, or “Syria,” or “Trayvon,” or a cluster like “family-children-fear” or “work-loans-student” or “ISIS-money-war” surrounding a giant “help”—the most common word of all. After a gunman opened fire on police officers in Dallas in 2016, the word “police” ballooned, surrounded by “God-guns-black-America” with a tiny “peace” and even tinier “Congress.”
At one point during my visit to Shailagh’s office that day, there was some commotion out in the hallway, and I followed her to the doorway to see what it was.
“Hey! How you doing?
“This guy! How you doing?
“There she is. How are you?”
It was Biden. The VP zooming through the West Wing, zooming toward us, flanked by serious-looking men in black suits. “Hey, how you doing?” he said to me in his Joe Biden way. He shook my hand in his Joe Biden way—the net effect is always like you’re a neighbor who just won some big bowling tournament, and he’s so pleased! He gave Shailagh a quick hug and kept on zooming.
“Yeah, I know,” Shailagh said when we sat back down in her office. Neither of us even needed to say it out loud. Biden may have been behaving like . . . Biden, but he didn’t look like the person we were used to seeing. He looked thin. Brittle. Pale and exhausted. I wondered if perhaps that was just the look of a seventy-three-year-old man who had decided to pass up a lifelong dream to be president.
“I’d say it’s more complicated than that,” Shailagh said, and for a moment we reminisced.
Biden was how Shailagh and I had become friends in the first place; she was his deputy chief of staff and communications director back in 2013 when I was profiling him for a magazine. She invited me to fly on Air Force Two to Rome for the pope’s inauguration, where she and I and a team of patient reporters watched Biden in his aviator sunglasses hobnob with world leaders. I was grateful for the opportunity, but afterward I told Shailagh I didn’t really have anything to write about beyond: Here is what it feels like to stand with a bunch of patient reporters watching Biden in his aviator sunglasses hobnob with world leaders. That’s how those press trips work. There’s a rope: the powerful on one side, the curious on the other, everybody smiling and waving. You couldn’t get at how anyone thought, what gave them nightmares, what private moments anybody cherished or even cared about. You couldn’t get close.
Shailagh thought about that. “We should go to Wilmington,” she said. “Let me ask the VP.”
And so that’s what we did, the three of us, romping through Biden’s Delaware hometown as he relived his childhood there. “It’s really muddy back here,” Biden said, plowing through the woods to find the old swimming hole, the Secret Service guys trying to keep up. “Shailagh, you will not believe— Come here, Shailagh. I told you about this, didn’t I, Shailagh?” He took us past his first girlfriend’s house, his second girlfriend’s house, his favorite girlfriend’s house; we stopped at his high school and the hoagie shop he loved, and we sat together on the neighborhood stoop where, as a kid, he’d filled his mouth with rocks, attempting to cure his debilitating stutter. We went to the cemetery where his first wife, Neilia, and his baby Naomi were buried—he didn’t want to get too close—and we found ourselves peeking into the front window of his boyhood home so we could see the dining room hutch where his sister, Valerie, used to hide. “Do you see what I’m talking about, Shailagh? Now, if only these people were home, I could show you my room.” All day long the two of them laughed and bickered like father and daughter; it was a privilege to witness the tenderness and to begin to see the ways in which a White House operates like a family. Or at least this part of that one did.
I remember asking Shailagh back then if there was a chance Biden would make a run for president in 2016. “Oh, he would never get in the way of Hillary,” she said, and that was that—nothing worth talking about. It seemed kind of sad, a guy spending his whole life aiming for the presidency and getting so close but now answering a call to duty that involved shutting up and not mucking up the chance for the country to finally see a woman serve.
That day in her office, after we saw Biden zooming down the hall, Shailagh told me about the toll Beau Biden’s brain cancer had taken on everyone; the vice president’s son had lost the battle and died at forty-six on May 30, 2015. Shailagh said that was why Biden looked the way he did; she said anyone urging him to launch a presidential bid during his time of grief, as some were doing all the way up through the 2016 primaries, didn’t know him or didn’t love him.
She let it go at that, like you would if it were your dad suffering.
“God, this early stuff,” she said, returning to the letters. She flipped through a red binder. “Oh, I remember this woman. Yeah, we ended up inviting her to a speech.”
I suppose nostalgia was the main reason Shailagh thought to tour me through some of the letters that day. The administration ending, everyone getting ready to pack up and leave, all those letters left over. What would become of them? History is . . . big. History is sweeping. History is supposed to be a record of momentous occasions, not so much the tiny, insignificant ones.
“These are the voices in the president’s head,” Shailagh said. And I suppose that got to the heart of the matter. “He internalizes these things. Some of these letters he carries around and stews over. Especially the critical ones. It’s a private space he’s been able to preserve. Which suits him, you know?”
I got the sense that the letters were kind of Obama’s Wilmington. A path toward understanding. A back door swinging open. Here was a chance to get to know Obama in a way most people hadn’t. The tiny stories that stuck. The voices that called. The cries and the howls of the people he had pledged to serve. Here was the raw material of the ideas that bounced through his mind as he went about his days in cabinet meetings, bilateral summits, fundraisers, the Situation Room, and to his bed at night.
Jeanne Marie Laskas is the author of seven books, including Concussion, Hidden America, and The Exact Same Moon. Her writing has appeared in GQ; Esquire; The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; and many other publications. Laskas serves as director of the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing. She lives on a horse farm in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.