Letters to a President: Return to Sender
April 8, 2015
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama,
I am enclosing a copy of Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President 2001-2015 (Seven Stories Press), which contains over 100 letters that I sent to you and President George W. Bush (from 2001 to 2015). They were almost entirely unanswered and unacknowledged.
One of these letters asked you about the White House’s policies regarding letters it receives. I raised this issue early in your first term with the Director of the Office of Presidential Correspondence, Mike Kelleher, who said there was no specific policy regarding responses, but that he would get back to me after the Office of Presidential Correspondence considered the matter. He did not.
Citizen correspondence is important both for you as President and them. For the citizens, it is an opportunity to circumvent the barriers presented by the media and governmental institutions to directly access the White House. For presidents, letters help, as you have said, escape “the bubble” (e.g. the ten letters from citizens you read each evening). Letters from citizens also convey ideas and observations that alert you to conditions, issues, and urgencies at hand and occasionally provide you with an opportunity to publically discuss the point raised by an ordinary citizen who penned such a letter.
Just the other day, when you were visiting Ohio, a chance question to you from a person in the audience elicited your view that mandatory voting would “be transformative” and exists in a number of other democracies, such as Australia. Those few words alone will stimulate a public discussion in an era of low voter turnout, including the pros and cons of having a None of the Above (NOTA) option for voters.
Letters can be very valuable by asking questions that offer you an opportunity to respond on matters or issues not ordinarily addressed by the press corps or officials or members of Congress. (Incidentally, the first annual review of the White House press corps and its interaction with the president appears in the current issue (March/April 2015) of the Columbia Journalism Review funded by the Helen Thomas Fund. She would like that!)
There are many other potential benefits of sending letters to presidents. For example, during Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s entire four-year term, many of the major anti-nuclear power groups could not obtain a meeting with him. Although he had met numerous times with representatives from the nuclear industry, he would not respond to our several letters and calls so that he hear and respond to the empirical positions and recommendations of experienced groups whose overall views he did not share. I wrote asking if you could intervene and urge him to meet with us. Also, you needed to know about this rejection by your Secretary of Energy. There was no response.
I understand that you and your staff send courtesy responses to invitations to events around the country and you respond to letters about highly visible issues, such as the auto industry bailout, with form letters. Of course, you also respond to political allies and supporters in some fashion. But, that leaves out many letters reflecting the knowledge and position of many engaged Americans who should neither be stonewalled, nor overlooked.
Here is what I recommend:
- Issue a policy on responding to letters with whatever classification you choose to make so that people can know what to expect.
- At the very least, these active citizens should receive an acknowledgement of receipt of their letters and emails. This is what the Prime Minister of Canada does, regardless of whether the letters are supportive or critical. Additionally, the prime minister refers letters to the appropriate ministry for further review. Without even an acknowledgement, citizens might become cynical and/or stop writing.
- Have your staff select the letters with ideas, proposals or suggestions that they think would make a good annual public report to the American people. Include critical letters that point out shortcomings. This has a salutary effect on “the bubble” and goes beyond the few letters that all presidents use as political props.
I’ll conclude with an invitation, which you may wish to reconsider, that appears in my book Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President 2001-2015. On May 4, 2012, I sent a letter to you urging you to address a proposed gathering of a thousand leaders of the nonprofit civic community at a hotel ballroom near the White House, at your scheduled convenience. These leaders head diverse groups supporting justice for consumers, workers, small taxpayers, the poor and other environmental, health, housing, transportation and energy causes. These organizations represent many millions of Americans across the country who support them with donations and volunteer time. There was no reply. Then, I sent the letter to the first Lady Michelle Obama’s East Wing. Her staff at least responded, writing that you had no time. Well, what about any time this year?
Jimmy Carter addressed just such a group of civic leaders after his election in 1976. The event was very successful and helped give greater visibility to this very important civic sector in our society. I found your White House’s response disingenuous, in as much as you have traveled across the country and the world directly promoting by name for-profit U.S. companies and the jobs these companies create. (In India, it was for Boeing and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.) Well, the nonprofit sector employs millions of Americans and its growth and services are good for the society, are they not?
I hope you and the family will enjoy perusing this book and possibly gaining some insights and ideas that will enhance your service to our country, its people and its interaction with the rest of the world. This volume could have been called a “bubble buster,” except we could only wonder whether these letters were ever given access through that self-described encasement.