After campaigning about how “we” (the American people) could “change” Washington, US President Barack Obama is trying not to lose contact with the Americans who elected him to be their president.
His biggest domestic challenge is rescuing the country’s economy from disaster and, to help him with the challenge, Obama has apparently taken a cue from another US president who did just that – Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A report by ABC’s Jake Tapper reveals that the new president is reading a selection of 10 letters from the public every morning. And not only is he reading them, he has also developed the habit of distributing the letters ahead of policy meetings, telling aides “this is the sort of person our policy needs to address”.
The letters, selected by the White House Correspondence Office, tell the story of families struggling to make their mortgage payments, of businessmen having a hard time cutting costs, or of divorced parents barely managing to raise their children on social security. Sometimes the purple folder includes letters from children.
Each day, Obama replies to two or three correspondents in his own hand.
Tapper quotes the president’s senior advisor David Axelrod: “[Obama’s] greatest concern is getting isolated in the White House, away from the experiences of the American people”.
Yet the 44th US president is not the first to have requested a daily account of real America’s concerns. Historian Robert McElvaine recalls in the Huffington Post that the habit served President Roosevelt well during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The White House received 450,000 letters in just the first week of Roosevelt’s presidency, McElvaine writes, and they continued to pour in at the rate of 5,000 to 8,000 a week. Under Roosevelt’s administration, the staff employed to answer letters from the public soon rose from one person to 50.
Just like Obama does today, Roosevelt argued then that the letters offered the best indicator of the public’s opinion and of its needs. And judging by FDR’s experience, McElvaine adds, “the nation (…) may benefit substantially from the adoption of the practice by the new president.”