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.