Jeanne Marie Laskas’s article The Mailroom in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday both moved me and left me with unanswered questions. Laskas describes former President Obama’s mailroom. In it, a group of relatively young staff members received approximately 10,000 letters and emails daily, analyzed them in terms of the issues raised, responded to them or referred them to the bureaucracy, and – most significantly – chose 10 every day to be read by the President.
Obama saw the letters “as a periscope outside the bubble, as a way to see as he used to see, before Secret Service protection and armored vehicles.” What interested Obama most were personal stories that were linked to public policy, for instance stories about how people’s lives could be improved by policy changes (gun control) or had been improved (the Affordable Care Act). The letters included in the article, for example by people who had experienced the effects of gun violence or PTSD or both, had an emotional rawness that moved readers.
I understand why Obama adopted the practice of 10LAD. He is a story-teller and responds to stories that give human meaning to the dilemmas of governing. I’m left wondering why people chose to tell their stories, particularly tragic ones, to the president. Is it that Obama projected – at least to some – the image of an empathetic listener? Wouldn’t people do better by telling their stories to family members or helping professionals? Did some of these people have few trusted family members and were they unable to afford professional help?
As a Canadian, I wonder if we tell stories to the Queen – our overseas figurehead ruler – or the Governor-General, her local proxy? Does Prime Minister Trudeau, a person who has striven to project empathy, receive anything close to Obama’s flood of correspondence (even divided by 10 to account for the smaller population)?
Laskas noted that the letters were coded by issue. What wasn’t clear was whether the coded results were shared with the President or other administration officials to provide another way of monitoring public opinion. Was there a trend that could have warned Obama or anyone else in the White House about the sense of chagrin and anger building in rural America and the Midwest that ultimately elected Donald Trump?
Laskas’s article concludes with the information that the Obama mailroom was staffed by political appointees, all of whom were preparing to leave. But, keeping with the spirit of public service, they were preparing briefings for the incoming Trump Administration on the nature of their work, so that Trump could choose to either retain or modify mailroom practice.
This leads of course to the question of how the Trump Administration, and Trump himself, will handle the mailroom. A notorious narcissist nonetheless heard voices others didn’t hear. Will power only heighten the narcissism? Will he attempt to reach out to his supporters through the mailroom? I hope Laskas provides a sequel.