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“I lost my job, my health benefits and my self worth in a matter of 5 days.”
The nightly briefing book arrived at the White House residence just before 8:00 p.m., hand--delivered to President Obama by a junior member of his staff. It was a large, three--ring binder that had been covered in black leather and stamped with the presidential seal, and Obama sometimes eyed it wearily and lamented the arrival of what he called his “homework packet.” Each night brought another few hundred pages of policy memos and scheduling notes, another deluge of intelligence about two wars, terrorist plots, and the tumbling U.S. economy. Some documents Obama only skimmed. Others he set aside to read the next morning.
He opened the binder and reached for a thin purple folder--the one item that he always read, and usually read first. The contents inside the purple folder had become a fixture of his presidency, shaping his speeches and informing his policies. Senior advisers had referred to it by turns as Obama’s “lifeline,” “inspiration,” “connection to reality,” and “guide to what people really care about.” On this evening, the folder had been labeled with the date: “January 8,
It was a snowy Friday night, the end of another long day at the end of another long week inside the White House. Obama and his family had recently returned from a ten-day trip to Hawaii, but he joked to friends that he already craved another vacation. In Washington, Obama had come back to a Republican resurgence that threatened the passage of his health-care bill; to the attempted terrorist bombing of a passenger flight over Michigan; to the latest American death in Afghanistan, from an explosion on January 3; to the mounting resistance of Tea Party protesters, some of whom marched across the street from his house and waved Obama-Hitler signs; to an approval rating of 50 percent and dropping, the lowest for a second-year president in more than half a century; to the increasingly feeble defense of his own press secretary, Robert Gibbs, who, on this day, had stood in front of eighty reporters during a regular briefing and said of his boss’s current outlook: “I would say the president is worried about today and worried about the future.”
Hours earlier, Obama had made a short statement of his own. It had once again fallen on him to deliver bad news, so he had entered the East Room of the White House at 2:45 p.m., displaying what had become some of his most familiar gestures--the body language of disappointment. He narrowed his eyes, pursed his lips, and offered a solemn nod once he reached the lectern. Another eighty-five thousand people had lost their jobs during the last month, he said. More than four million had lost jobs in the last year. Almost one million had given up on looking for work entirely. “Today’s numbers,” Obama said, frowning and squinting into the camera lights, “are a reminder that the road to recovery is never straight.”
There were other reminders: the new gray hair spreading across the sides of Obama’s head, the heavy creases running across his cheeks, and the dark circles deepening below his eyes. The president still looked remarkably fit for forty-eight years old, but some medical experts believed the last twelve months had aged Obama by two or three years. His cholesterol was climbing, and he continued to rely on the occasional cigarette to calm his nerves. Like all presidents, he described his responsibilities as never-ending, and his aides conceded that they had underestimated the range of issues Obama would face during his first term. He had flown 152 times on Air Force One in the last year, visiting 30 states and 21 countries. He had given 160 news interviews, delivered 412 speeches, and spoken at 5 funerals. He had committed to a war in Afghanistan and received the Nobel Peace Prize. On an average day, he squeezed in a morning workout after his daughters left for school, rushed to a national security meeting at 8:30 a.m., and continued working virtually uninterrupted until nearly midnight. He usually spent the last two hours of his workday on a couch at home, where he fought off sleep and read the briefing book.
Now he opened the purple folder and glanced at the cover sheet.
“Memorandum to the president,” it read. “Per your request, we have attached 10 pieces of unvetted correspondence addressed to you.”
Inside, Obama found crumpled notebook paper, smudged ink, sloppy handwriting, and misspelled words--a collection of ten letters from constituents that he considered his most important daily reading. One letter was from a grade-schooler asking for help on his spelling homework; another was from an unemployed mother demanding a job. Depending on the nature of each letter, Obama sometimes copied them for senior advisers, distributed them to members of his cabinet, or read parts aloud to his wife before bed.
He had first requested a sampling of ten letters on his second day as president, and the purple folder had come six days a week ever since, couriered to Obama even when he was away at Camp David or traveling abroad. The White House mail staff sorted through twenty thousand letters and e‑mails addressed to Obama every day, screening for security threats, categorizing by topic, and then picking the most representative ten pieces for the purple folder. The letters chosen each day were the most intimate connection Obama had left to the people he governed. He believed the wide-ranging feedback--quick e‑mails and thoughtful letters; congratulations and condemnations--offered him a unique view beyond the presidential bubble into what he called “the real America,” a place of uncensored opinion. “I will tell you,” Obama had said, laughing, “my staff is very evenhanded, because about half of these letters call me an idiot.” He loved the give and take, aides said. He always read all ten letters and typically wrote back to one or two writers each day, usually responding by hand to those who offered articulate criticism or moving stories of hardship. Obama often said that the letters not only reminded him of why he had run for president; they also reminded him of all the work he had left to do.
But lately the tenor of the letters had changed, becoming darker. There were fewer glowing, post-inauguration thank-you notes and more missives addressed to “Dear Jackass,” “Dear Moron,” or “Dear Socialist.” Former campaign volunteers wrote to express disillusionment; other people shared stories of how Obama’s policies had failed them. Earlier in the day, during his somber speech in the East Room, Obama had spoken about the America now reflected back to him in the mail at the beginning of his second year in office. “In the letters that I receive at night,” he had said, “I often hear from Americans who are facing hard times--Americans who’ve lost their jobs or can’t afford to pay their bills. They’re worried about what the future holds.”
This had become the unmistakable message delivered each day inside the purple folder: America was struggling. Its president was struggling. Both desperately needed a better year ahead.
Obama reached into the folder on January 8 and removed the first letter. It was three pages long and written on lined notebook paper. He had always preferred handwritten notes to e‑mails, believing them to be more thoughtful and to contain better stories. The return address showed Monroe, Michigan. The writing consisted of bubbly block letters, sometimes traced twice for emphasis. Obama started to read.
“Dear Mr. President,” the letter began.
Jennifer Cline, twenty-seven, did not usually write letters, but she was not usually this bored. Wheel of Fortune had ended. Jeopardy! had ended. Her husband was out working the midnight shift, and her two sons had gone to bed. She sat in the living room of their small duplex in Monroe, Michigan, flipping aimlessly through the channels on her big-screen television. Obama’s face appeared on the screen, and she set down the remote.
She had liked Obama ever since the beginning of his 2008 presidential campaign. He seemed more accessible than other politicians, she thought, and she viewed him as a contemporary. He had two young daughters; she had two young sons. He came from the middle class, and so did she. His campaign had converted her from a halfhearted Democrat into an advocate who stuck a sign in her front yard and argued with relatives who refused to vote for Obama because of his race. “He’s more like us than any other politician,” she had told them, but now the program on television gave her doubts. It was a holiday special about life inside the White House. She watched as Obama chased his dog across a manicured lawn, laughed with his daughters about their giant Christmas tree, tossed a football in the Oval Office, and stood next to a showcase of formal china. Jen looked around her own low-budget rental, with its faux-brick interior, milk stains on the television screen, white sheets draped over used furniture, and an aging pit bull snoring at her feet. She wondered: Does he really know what this life is like?
She reached across the coffee table and ripped a few pages from her eldest son’s elementary-school notebook. She had always loved to write, once spending a year on an unpublished autobiography and keeping a regular journal during times of high stress. Lately she had been writing a lot in that journal. She began her letter in the top left corner--“Dear Mr. President”--and then skipped a line before writing again.
“Mr. Obama,” she continued, “I am going to begin by telling you about my life over the past 2 years.”
Where to start? She had been living in a two-story, riverside home with her boyfriend when the Michigan economy began to collapse in 2007. She lost her longtime job as a pharmacy technician in May of that year, downsized with three days’ notice. Her mother, also a pharmacy tech, was laid off on the same day. Her boyfriend’s new swimming-pool business sold two pools all summer, sunk $30,000 into debt, and was shuttered. The bank foreclosed on their house. Jen and her son, Brenden, moved into her parents’ double-wide trailer in the Detroit suburbs, where her father, a mechanic, paid the bills even though his own work at the Chevrolet dealership had been cut to fifteen hours a week. A few days after she moved in, Jen found out she was pregnant with her second son.
In her letter to Obama, she reduced all of that to: “I lost my job, my health benefits and my self worth in a matter of 5 days.”
She applied for a dozen jobs every week while working part-time as a bartender. Kohl’s, a budget department store, asked her to come in for an interview, so she bought a new dress and showed up at the appointed time only to discover that it was a group interview shared with thirty-five other candidates. Home Depot offered her a job, but the store was forty-five miles away and the $7-an-hour wage was less than the cost of child care. Finally, late in 2008, Jen programmed a new number into her cell phone under the name MARVIN (Michigan Automated Response Voice Interactive Network), and called it to request unemployment assistance. She joked with other unemployed friends about throwing a MARVIN party since the android had become such a regular part of their lives. After Jen called a few dozen times, MARVIN granted her unemployment assistance of $850 a month.
In the letter, that became: “In Michigan, Mr. President, jobs are very difficult to land.”
The $850 wasn’t enough, not even close, so Jen used food stamps to buy groceries and credit cards to buy almost everything else. She got a card from Bank of America with a $3,000 limit and maxed it out within a few months. Interest and late fees mounted to a debt of $15,000 and Bank of America sued. So did another credit card company. And another. Soon Jen owed more than $50,000--debts to three credit card companies, two doctors’ offices, a car dealership, and a community college.
Her skin started to break out in rashes, but she put off 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.
That became: “I was then diagnosed with both melonoma and basal cell skin cancer and had to begin chemotherapy without health insurance.”
Her letter was starting to feel like a downer, Jen thought, which was not what she had intended. She reached into her son’s notebook and ripped out another page. She wanted to tell Obama about how she and her boyfriend, Jay, had finally gotten married in November and splurged on the open bar. How Brenden had secretly stashed away months of his allowance and offered to contribute $95 to the wedding reception. 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 job working the midnight shift for Delta Air Lines, and how she had received a government Pell Grant to take classes toward a nursing degree at the local community college.
That became: “And in just a couple of years, we’ll be in a great spot. We can both have a great job, and hopefully stop renting, and buy a home.”
Jen had filled almost three pages in less than ten minutes, more a stream-of-consciousness journal entry than a formal note. She considered it unlikely that anyone would ever read it, let alone Obama, but she hardly cared. She felt the same way about the letter as she did about her unpublished autobiography: It was cathartic just to share her life story. “Hope this letter finds you in great health and happiness,” she concluded. Then she signed her name at the bottom: “Jennifer Cline,” which was what only bill collectors called her, but somehow “Jen” seemed too informal for the president. She had never been to Washington, and she looked up the zip code on the Internet. Then she grabbed a standard white envelope and addressed it to “The White House.”
As Jen walked downstairs to the mailbox, she thought about the one item she had decided against including in the letter: She and Jay had begun to consider filing for bankruptcy. Jen had already been granted a Chapter 7 bankruptcy a year earlier, but Jay was still more than $60,000 in debt. Their combined annual income was $24,000. They had spent a few weeks running through the calculations and determined that, in a best-case scenario, it would take them forty years to pay off what they owed. Bankruptcy, which would erase almost all of Jay’s debt, seemed like their only way out.