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

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A01

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.

"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."

After being laid off, she applied for a few dozen jobs each week and documented her failures in order to receive $850 per month in unemployment assistance. Home Depot finally offered a position, but the $7-an-hour wage was less than the cost of child care. Instead, she procured a $2,600 Pell Grant -- "thanks to you Mr. President" -- and enrolled in a nursing program at a community college. She saved a new number in her cellphone under the name MARVIN (Michigan's Automated Response Voice Interactive Network) and called it to request extensions on her unemployment aid. Her friends joked about throwing a MARVIN party, because they all knew the android so well.

In the letter, that became: "In Michigan, Mr. President, jobs are very difficult to land."

Late in 2008, Cline started to notice rashes on her skin, but she decided against seeing a doctor because she no longer had health insurance. It was probably just stress, she thought. But the rashes kept spreading, so she applied for Medicaid and was repeatedly denied until, on her fourth visit to the caseworker, she pulled up her shirt in the middle of the office to reveal a series of deep red streaks on her chest and back. She started on Medicaid a few days later.

That became: "I then was diagnosed with both melonoma [sic] and basal cell skin cancer."

Her letter was starting to feel like a downer, Cline thought, which was not what she had intended. She wanted to tell Obama about how she and her boyfriend had finally gotten married in November and splurged on an open bar for the reception. How Brenden had secretly stashed away months of his $3 weekly allowance and then offered to contribute $95 toward the wedding. How, after radiation, two rounds of chemo and some plastic surgery, doctors now believed she would outlast the cancer. How her husband had found a $14-an-hour job working the midnight shift for Delta Air Lines, and how he sometimes detoured through the nicer suburbs on his way home to scout out houses for a day when he made $50,000 and felt ready to buy again.

That became: "And in just a couple of years, we will be in a great spot."

Cline had written three pages in less than 10 minutes, more a stream-of-consciousness journal entry than a formal note. She never considered that anyone might read it. She felt about the letter the way she felt about her autobiography: Readers didn't matter -- it was cathartic just to share. "Hope this letter finds you in great health and happiness," she concluded. Then she ripped the pages from her son's notebook and signed her name at the bottom: Jennifer Cline, which was what only bill collectors called her, but "Jen" seemed too informal for the president.

She walked to the porch, dropped the letter in an aluminum mailbox and pulled up the red flag. She had never been to Washington. One day, she wanted to take her boys. She wondered what the White House looked like up close. She wondered whether it had a mailbox.

* * *

The envelope from Monroe, Mich., arrived in Washington and was tested for chemicals and radioactive materials. Then it was packed into a 20-pound white box along with 1,000 other letters to Obama, carried into the lobby of an office building near the White House, scanned by a metal detector, eyed by a security guard and placed into an elevator destined for the ninth floor. Once there, it was stacked next to five similar boxes, all labeled "White House correspondence."

Here is the filter between the public and its president: a sprawling floor in an ordinary office building, its location kept secret as a security precaution, where the cubicles remain spare and doughnuts and cookies sit on a counter in the break room. Want to call the president? The phone rings here. Want to e-mail him? The message arrives on one of these computers. Want to send him a gift? It might be stored temporarily in a closet next to the break room.

The only decorations in the correspondence office are amateur renderings of Obama tacked to the walls, a sampling of the 100,000 letters and drawings sent by schoolchildren last year. Name tags cover another wall, so that 50 staff members, 25 interns and a rotation of 1,500 volunteers can wear individual badges before communicating on behalf of the president.

Volunteers deal mainly with e-mail, which comes at a rate of 100,000 missives per week but is the easiest to process, because a computer program searches for key words and then categorizes the messages. Only experienced volunteers or interns answer the phones. They wear headsets and sit at one of 25 "comment line stations," instructed to limit each call to two minutes. Callers hoping to give feedback to the president sometimes wait on hold for an hour before they reach a cubicle on the ninth floor. Each comment line has an automatic transfer button for suicide calls or threats. On a good day, the correspondence staff speaks with 2,000 callers.

Paper mail requires the most work. Cline's envelope from Michigan waited alongside the 5,000 letters and 4,000 faxes that arrive each day, and White House policy demands that each must be read, in part to identify threats.

On the morning of Jan. 8, a 24-year-old named Nicole Stickel arrived at her desk and grabbed a stack of mail. She had volunteered for Obama during the campaign and then moved home to Iowa before being offered an entry-level position as a mail analyst for $36,000 a year. Her job is to read 200 to 350 letters each day, from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Supervisors instruct her not to divulge details of her job to family or friends. The messages are private, they say, intended for the president only.

She started reading the mail and sorting it into piles. Some were policy-specific notes that she rerouted to government agencies, dropping them in bins labeled "Justice," "Education" and "HUD." About 20 percent were from people requesting a specific presidential greeting to commemorate a new baby, a military retirement or a birthday. Dozens of 80-to-99-year-olds, for instance, wanted birthday cards, so the correspondence office sent each back a form letter signed by the president and first lady. "You have witnessed great milestones in our Nation's history," the letter read, "and your life represents an important part of the American story."

But Stickel's biggest job was to organize the mail into about 70 subject folders -- an ever-changing list of categories that offers a barometer of the nation's priorities. About half of the letters in February focused on health-care reform; about half last November focused on the war in Afghanistan. Six to 10 percent of all letters amount to fan mail for Obama, offering him support. Other regular categories include Global Warming, Faith and Politics, Gas Prices, Fort Hood, Death Penalty, Darfur, H1N1, Iran, Jobs, First Lady, Torture, From Inmates, POTUS Health and Single Parents.

Every note is responded to with a form letter. Kids are also sent a picture of Bo, the first family's dog, posed on the White House lawn. Stickel and other employees are never allowed to write a reply to a letter without the approval of Mike Kelleher, director of correspondence. The office instead relies on hundreds of form letters -- a polished response for each anticipated comment or query. An Emerging Issues Committee meets regularly to predict the next popular topics and craft new letters.

As Stickel read through her stack, she looked for compelling pieces that were representative of the rest of the mail and pertinent to the news. She picked the best three to five and wrote "sample" at the top, designating letters that could be sent to the president. "Those are the ones that stick in your head," she said.

* * *

Early in the afternoon, a few hundred "sample" letters arrived in Kelleher's corner office, and he spread them across a table to choose Obama's 10. Kelleher, an Illinois native who once worked as the outreach director for Obama's Senate office, had been instructed to remain unbiased in picking the contents of the purple folder. The president wanted not necessarily the best pieces of mail, or the longest, or the most encouraging, he told aides. He wanted a representative sample: letters complimentary and critical, elegant and hurried. So Kelleher made it his habit to look at the daily metrics of incoming mail -- for example, 60 percent about health-care reform, 30 percent about jobs, 10 percent about Iraq -- and reflect that same mix in picking the day's 10 letters.

On one typical afternoon, Kelleher selected a diverse collection for the folder: an e-mail supporting the use of reconciliation for health-care legislation, and another opposing it; a boss writing on behalf of an employee without medical insurance; a woman from Ohio forwarding best wishes on behalf of her deceased mother; a constituent upset about government spending "beyond our means"; a credit card user whose monthly payment had jumped from $140 to $340; a 9-year-old whose parents could no longer afford to throw him a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

Kelleher reached across his table on a Friday in early January and grabbed a letter from Monroe, Mich. It was longer than average, but it dealt with of-the-moment topics such as unemployment and health care. It reflected both the country's problems and its promise -- just the kind of story that Kelleher guessed his boss would appreciate. He placed it in the purple folder, along with nine others, and Jennifer Cline's letter was hand-delivered to the White House.

* * *

Obama read the 10 letters in the folder on Jan. 8, but he responded to only a few. He typically returns five to 15 letters each week, aides said, and he tends to write back most regularly to level-headed critics, military veterans and destitute Americans who maintain their optimism. He gravitates toward messages that "inspire," said Valerie Jarrett, his close friend and adviser, and prefers mail that provides a "counterbalance to business in Washington" and transports him someplace else.

After Obama read Cline's letter, he took out one of his custom-made notecards -- thick slabs of white paper cut to the size of postcards, with the presidential seal embossed at the top.

He had always preferred to write by hand, using a yellow legal pad to craft sections of his autobiography and his campaign speeches. Now he took out a black fountain pen and started to write in the top left corner.

"Jennifer," he began.

Obama had made a habit of keeping his responses short: one sentence that expressed gratitude for the letter, and one or two more that tended toward encouragement instead of advice. "Dream big dreams," he wrote to one teenager. "I'll try to do better for you next week," he wrote to a detractor.

The president is said to love letters for their intimacy, but that sensation is fleeting. Once he finishes each response, his letters are delivered to the staff secretary's office, where copies are made and distributed across the building. Duplicates are then sent to the records office to be preserved as relics. More copies go to the speechwriting team, which incorporates letters into remarks broadcast worldwide.

Last month, one letter writer introduced Obama at a speech in Philadelphia and five more were invited to the White House bill-signing ceremony for health-care legislation. Only while the president presses pen to paper do the messages remain private and belong exclusively to him.

"Thanks for the very kind and inspiring letter," he wrote to Cline. "I know times are tough, but knowing there are folks out there like you and your husband give [sic] me confidence that things will keep getting better!"

He signed his name in the bottom right corner, with a sweeping "B" and "O." Then he set Cline's letter aside and moved on to the next.

* * *

Nothing good ever came in the mail. Ever since Cline voided her Cosmopolitan subscription last year, the aluminum box had become the sole territory of Jennifer Cline, not Jen. Each day brought hospital bills, credit card statements and "URGENT" financial notices -- the reminders of a life in disarray.

She walked out to the porch on a freezing weekday in January, feeling nauseated from the latest round of chemo, or maybe from the diet of scrambled eggs and Twizzlers, which had become the only foods she could keep down. Inside the box was a big yellow envelope, stamped first class from the White House, and Cline immediately thought: How did I get in so much trouble that now the president is involved?

She opened the envelope to find two pieces of cardboard taped together. Protected in between was another envelope, much smaller, and inside that envelope was a notecard adorned with the presidential seal.

Cline remembered the letter she had written to Obama three weeks earlier, and her hands started to shake. She carried the notecard into the kitchen and held it under the light: cursive handwriting, a grammatical error and small smudges of black ink.

Was it real? She thought so. She started to laugh, then scream.

"Jennifer," the letter began, and this one was not from a bill collector.

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