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Dear Mr. President . . .

For a look outside presidential bubble, Obama reads 10 personal letters each day

Each day, President Obama reads 10 pieces of correspondence representing a sampling of the tens thousands of letters that are addressed to the White House. Sometimes, he writes back.

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The black binder arrived at the White House residence just before 8 p.m., and President Obama took it upstairs to begin his nightly reading. The briefing book was dated Jan. 8, 2010, but it looked like the same package delivered every night, with printouts of speeches, policy recommendations and scheduling notes. Near the back was a purple folder, which Obama often flips to first.

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"MEMORANDUM TO THE PRESIDENT," read a sheet clipped to the folder. "Per your request, we have attached 10 pieces of unvetted correspondence addressed to you."

Inside, Obama found crinkled notebook pages, smudged ink, cursive handwriting and misspelled words -- a collection of 10 original letters that he considers among his most important daily reading material, aides said. Ever since he requested a sampling of mail on his second day in office, the letters have become a staple of his presidency. Some he immediately reads out loud to his wife; others he distributes to senior staff members aboard Air Force One. Some are from students requesting help with homework; others are from constituents demanding jobs or health care. About half of the letters, Obama said during a recent speech, "call me an idiot."

They are the most intimate connection the president has to the people he governs, aides said, but even this link is hardly direct. Each day, 20,000 letters and e-mails addressed to Obama are screened for threats and then sent to a nondescript office building in downtown Washington. Hundreds of volunteers and staff members sort the mail into categories before a senior aide picks the 10 destined to provide Obama with his daily glimpse beyond what he calls "the presidential bubble."

Obama opened the purple folder on Jan. 8 and pulled out a three-page letter written on lined notebook paper. He prefers handwritten letters to e-mails, believing them to be more thoughtful, with better stories. The return address showed Monroe, Mich. The writing consisted of bubbly block letters, sometimes traced twice for emphasis. Obama started to read.

"Dear Mr. President," the letter began.

* * *

Jennifer Cline, 27, did not typically write letters, but she was not usually this bored. "Jeopardy" had ended, and so had "Wheel of Fortune." She sat on the couch in her single-story duplex in Monroe, flipping through the channels until Obama's face appeared on the screen. It was a holiday special of some kind, featuring the first family, and Cline set down the remote. She had voted for Obama, and she liked him even more now on TV, glimpsing his life inside the White House. He had two young daughters; she had two young sons. He had a dog; she had a dog. It occurred to Cline that Obama seemed normal somehow, like the kind of person who might want to read a letter.

She had always loved to write, once spending a year crafting an autobiography that remains unpublished, and now she reached to the coffee table and ripped a few pages out of a school notebook purchased for her 8-year-old son, Brenden. "Dear Mr. President," Cline wrote, and then she skipped a line before starting again.

"Mr. Obama," she continued, "I am going to begin by telling you about myself and my life over the past 2 years."

Where to start? Cline had been newly pregnant and living in a riverside house owned by her boyfriend in 2007, when the economy began to collapse in Michigan. She lost her job as a pharmacy technician in May of that year, on the same day her mother was laid off. Her boyfriend's swimming-pool business collapsed. She racked up $50,000 in debt on four credit cards, and two companies sued her. She filed for bankruptcy. The government foreclosed on her boyfriend's house. She moved in with her parents and then with a friend before finding the duplex, an affordable rental in a dodgy neighborhood, where Brenden's elementary school was suddenly shuttered for budgetary reasons and the docile, elderly family dog walked around in a spike-studded collar meant to intimidate would-be intruders.

In the letter, Cline reduced all that to: "I lost my job, my health benefits and my self worth in a matter of 5 days."


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