WASHINGTON – He kept coming back to the letters.
Perhaps nothing crystallized President Barack Obama's determination to press forward on health-care legislation more than the 10 letters he reads each day from ordinary Americans.
The letters became talismans for him: He carried them around. He recited their stories. He used them as rallying cries. (Or as props, as his critics saw it.)
And when at last it came time to sign the landmark health care bill, Obama still had them very much in mind.
The guests invited to Tuesday's signing ceremony in the East Room included the family of an Ohio woman who wrote to Obama that soaring premiums had forced her to give up her insurance and a small business owner from California who e-mailed the president about his struggle to insure his five employees. Other letter-writers were invited to a midday celebration of the legislation, including a 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who got a letter back from Obama after she wrote that her family of five had lost their insurance.
In his first week as president, Obama asked his staff to select 10 letters a day for him to read from among the tens of thousands that were flooding into the White House. He wasn't looking for a folder full of pats on the back, aides say.
"I don't want to tell you what to put in this folder," Obama told his correspondence director, Mike Kelleher, at one point early on.
Obama joked recently that he's sure his staff is sending him a representative sample — "because about half of these letters call me an idiot."
Fourteen months later, Obama still takes 10 letters (including e-mails and faxes) with him when he heads upstairs at the end of each weekday. He personally writes back to three or four.
The letters, the president has said, "do more to keep me in touch with what's happening around the country than just about anything else."
Health care and the economy are the most frequent topics of those who write to Obama, according to Kelleher.
And it was in those letters that Obama found a compelling counterpoint to abstract policy debates.
"The toughest letters are in children's handwriting," Obama said this winter. "Kids write me, 'My dad just lost a job; my grandma is sick, she can't afford health insurance.'"
This spring, it was Natoma Canfield who captured the president's attention.
The 50-year-old self-employed cleaning woman from Medina, Ohio, wrote to Obama that she had to drop her health coverage after her premiums shot up 40 percent. She feared losing her home if health bills started piling up.
Obama wrote back, "It's because of folks like you that we are still fighting to get health care done!"
He read Canfield's letter aloud to insurance company CEOs. His spokesman read it at a White House briefing. The White House invited Canfield's sister to introduce the president at an Ohio rally, where Obama expanded on her story, adding the news that she'd recently collapsed and been hospitalized.
"I'm here for Natoma," he declared.
The case humanized Obama's final push for health care. But it also demonstrated the dangers of what Obama's critics see as using people as props and oversimplifying complex issues with gripping anecdotes.
It turns out that Canfield most likely qualifies for Medicaid health coverage and the Cleveland Clinic, where she is being cared for, has no plans to put a lien on her home.
"You can find a story to suit any purpose," says Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York. "It's willing exploitation — people who want to lend themselves to a story line."
It was all too much for some Obama critics.
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck parodied Obama's letters with one from "Gertrude," complaining about the president's constant talk about his letters. "When do we find relief?" Beck read. "In our small town alone, 1,457 people have attempted suicide simply because they are sick and tired of hearing Barack Obama read letters or talk about letters that he reads every night."
Obama is as likely to answer his critics as supporters, aides say.
Jenn Whitcomb, who worked as a field organizer for Obama during the 2008 campaign, wrote to Obama last fall expressing her frustrations that he was taking a weak position on providing people with a public option for health coverage. "My father is going to die before he sees help from the government," Whitcomb wrote shortly before his death.
Obama wrote back to say he was sorry about her father and asked her not to be discouraged.
"The final bill may not be perfect — nothing is — but I guarantee it will help millions like your dad," he wrote.
The letters to Obama aren't all gloom and doom — there's comic relief in there, too.
One boy sent Obama his math homework and asked what the president thought. Obama checked it out and wrote back, "I think you only missed two."
On the Net:
Text of letter to Obama: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/03/15/im-here-because-natoma-0/letter-text
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