How to get your letter to Obama

Eli Saslow

"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, American President Barack 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, said his aides.

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, 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".

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 programme searches for key words and then categorises the messages.

Experienced volunteers or interns answer the telephones. 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. At least 5,000 letters and 4,000 faxes arrive each day, and White House policy demands that each must be read, in part to identify threats.

The path of one letter written to the president by Monroe, Michigan resident Jennifer Cline, 27, was followed and reported on by the Washington Post. Their story provides a sneak guide for those wishing to score a personal response from Obama:

1. Hand-write your letter.

2. Relate your experience of hard times but be optimistic.

3. Being a war veteran doesn't hurt.

4. Your hard times should relate to larger trends in the nation as a whole.

5. If you're going to criticise, be "level-headed."

However, some question whether this process - involving as it does careful vetting and lots of filtering - just creates the illusion of keeping in touch with the thoughts, hopes and fears of ordinary American citizens.


*Eli Saslow is a staff writer at the Washington Post.