But his staff responds to them.
That’s my takeaway* from Ryan Lizza’s piece in the New Yorker focused on a cache of internal White House memos he was leaked. After reproducing the text of a letter written by a woman whose husband was being laid off because he worked on the hopeless boondoggle that was the Ares space transport project and its funding was being cut, President Obama responds in a memo thusly, according to Lizza:
Obama scribbled a note to his staff: “Reply–can I get a sense of how Ares fit in with our long term NASA strategy to effectively respond.”
Oh, well, the president can’t know the ins and outs of every little (multi-billion dollar) program, right? He just wants some data so he can write a smart-sounding-yet-personal-letter — sounds totally reasonable.
A few days later, with that information in hand, Obama wrote to an aide, “Draft a short letter for Ginger, answering her primary concern–her husband’s career–for me to send.”
Ah. Scratch that “personal” part.
Now look: I get that the president can’t respond to every request sent his way. And we’ve been led to believe that he has, once in a while, cut a check for a constituent on hard times. (Though it is interesting that we only know about this because he’s said he’s done it; if there are stories out there about people who have received checks from the president, I haven’t seen them**. Ronald Reagan famously did the same — maybe that’s where President Obama got the story? — and was also known for getting personally involved with things. My favorite anecdote revolves around the woman who was holding on to a $100 check from the president as a memento despite her need for the cash; when Reagan heard about this, he instructed her to cash it and then told his accountant to send her the canceled check. Now that’s a personal touch!)
Here’s what I want, though: For the media to stop breathlessly reporting on this “President Obama reads 10 letters a day to connect with the real people” nonsense. I find it extremely difficult to give him credit for “connecting to the people” when he a.) has his staff do all the research and b.) has his staff write the actual letter. This isn’t Margaret Thatcher tearfully putting pen to paper to console the families who lost soldiers in the Falklands. This isn’t even Bill Clinton hand-writing a note to Chris Webber letting him know it’s not so bad that he totally blew it for the Fab Five. This is a president having his staff do all the work and then taking credit for the “personal touch” of his presidency. Give me a freaking break.
*My other takeaway is that it’s odd that the White House was frustrated with Republican obstructionism and struggled with the Congress in the first two years, but you’d never know it from Lizza’s piece: Only the briefest of mentions is given to the fact that during his first two years in office, Obama had a majority in the House and (for almost all of that time) a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. New rule: If your party completely dominates both the legislative and the executive branches of government, you don’t get to whine about not getting things done.
**But I wasn’t looking particularly hard; feel free to leave examples in the comments.
(Photo via Barack Obama’s Flickr feed.)