President Obama Writes Personal Checks to Struggling Americans
He doesn’t like to talk about it much, but according to a new book by Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, President Barack Obama sometimes writes personal checks to struggling Americans.
The book, Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President, is about what Saslow calls one of the President’s “signature routines in the White Houe”: every evening before he lays his weary head down to sleep, Obama dutifully reads 10 of the 20,000 letters sent to him each day from his constituents. Saslow says the President calls these letters “his most intimate link” to the American people.
They’re not always easy reading. Far from it. He’s been called everything from a “jackass” to a “moron” to the ever-popular “socialist.” As the number of Americans suffering through dire economic times has ballooned, so have the malevolent missives.
But sometimes the President is able to reach out and help those who write to him with their woes. Sometimes help means forwarding letters to government agencies or cabinet secretaries asking them to intervene. Other times it is a personal phone call or, occasionally, a personal check.
“It’s not something I should advertise, but it has happened,” Obama told Saslow.
The White House has refused all inquiries regarding the nature of these checks. But the fact that they’re being sent is an encouraging sign that despite his seeming disconnect from the American people and his frustrating inability (much of it no fault of his own: just Google ‘Republicans block Obama’s jobs bill’) to deliver upon the change he promised, the President really does care.
“Some of these letters you read and you say, ‘Gosh, I really want to help this person, and I may not have the tools to help them right now,’ ” Obama told Saslow. “And then you start thinking about the fact that for every one person that wrote describing their story, there might be another hundred thousand going through the same thing. So there are times when I’m reading the letters and I feel pained that I can’t do more, faster, to make a difference in their lives.”
The President expressed his personal frustration about the limitations his office place on his ability to effectively redress many of the problems facing the people who elected him to lead them to better days. In fact, he told Saslow that reading people’s tales of woe made him long for his days as a community organizer when, ironically, helping folks was a much less daunting task, a much more hands-on affair. Writes Saslow:
He was making $10,000 a year and working on the South Side of Chicago. He had just graduated from college, and he bought a used car for $2,000 and spent his days driving around to the city’s housing projects to speak with residents about their lives. He became familiar with many of the same issues that would flood his mail 25 years later: housing calamities, chronic unemployment and struggling schools.
Obama’s fellow organizers in Chicago considered him a master of hands-on, granular problem-solving. He was skinny and boyish, a good listener, if still a bit naive; and some of the older women in the housing projects made a habit of inviting him into their homes and cooking for him. He looked around their apartments, keeping a log of maintenance issues, and then delivered that list to the landlords. He helped arrange meetings with city housing officials to talk about asbestos problems. He established a tenants rights organization, founded a job-training program and led a tutoring group that prepared students for college.
Now he is the most powerful man in the world. But with that power comes a great degree of impotence as well.
“The people were right there in front of me, and I could say, ‘Let’s go to the alderman’s office,’ or, ‘Let me be an advocate in some fashion,’ ” the President told Saslow. “And here, just because of the nature of the office and the scope of the issues, you are removed in ways that are frustrating.
“Sometimes, what you want to do is just pick up the phone and say, ‘Tell me more about what’s going on, and let me see if I can be your social worker, be your advocate, be your mortgage adviser, be your employment counselor.’ So what I have to constantly reconcile in my mind is that I have a very specific role to play in this office, and I’ve got to make a bunch of big decisions that you hope in the aggregate will end up having a positive effect over this many lives. But you can’t always be certain.”
Still, he keeps reading and responding to those letters. He assures people that things will get better. It’s the least he can do.
“It lets them know I am listening,” he told Saslow.
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