Back in 2009, some young man at a town hall meeting with president Obama earned his fifteen minutes of fame by standing up and expressing his frustration at the depleted job market he had faced after graduating college. I don’t remember what the president’s response on the spot, in front of the cameras was, but his ultimate response, and the one that caught the media’s attention and was remembered in the following days was that he got personally involved in that individual’s struggle and had his staff find the young man a job. At the time, the comedian Marc Maron was part of a web series that was being broadcast from the husk that then remained of Air America Media. The day after this story he joked that President Obama was going to fix the economy, and that he was going to do it one person at a time.
In promoting a new book by one of its reporters, Eli Saslow, the Washington Post recently reported that President Obama has written personal checks to some of the American citizens who have written to him detailing the problems they were facing. No doubt many will read this and take heart at the implication that the president is in touch with the common person, and that he genuinely cares about the struggles of his constituents, to the extent that he is willing to engage in a little bit of self-sacrifice to help them out.
I do not find this story inspiring. In fact, I think that such person-to-person humanitarianism from the president sends a terrible message. It is very specifically not the job of the government to help people on an individual basis. Perhaps the principal reason for government’s very existence is the notion that we can collectively solve those problems which we cannot solve individually. There’s a division between the two that needs to be recognized and respected, and I think that just about anything that cuts against it justifies and worsens the weakness of our government.
I assume and I hope that people who write to the president do so because they feel the need to weigh in on an issue of broad social significance. No doubt there are crackpots and self-important individuals who write to describe problems that are perfectly unique to them, but with ten letters selected for President Obama to personally read each day, I would hope that only the ones that frame the personal narrative in terms of why it’s significant to an issue that’s important to the country at large would make the final cut.
If I’m right in all of this, then the authors of these letters are generally trying to prompt the president to take action that will help those who are in their position, and not strictly them as individuals. Even if that’s not the case, that damn well should be exactly the lens through which the president views each letter. If one impacts him, he should set it down upon his desk and ask a simple question: “What can I, as the president, do to help Americans in the situation this letter describes?” When he is seated in the Oval Office, the question should never be, “What can I do to personally help the author of this letter?” That isn’t the president’s role, and it shouldn’t be.
I don’t want to think that any of my president’s energies are going into improving the lots of singular constituents when those constituents are individuals among massive collectives of people facing the same or worse difficulties. It would be heart wrenching to turn away from the individual, and it may even be wrong, but only if one believes that there are situations in which no course of action is the right one. Turning away from the individual is sadly necessary when your every purpose is to pursue and execute what is best for the good of an entire country. If the authors of letters to the president wanted someone to address their personal struggles directly, it would have been better of them to write to charitable organizations, or old acquaintances, or reality television producers. Writing the president for personal help risks a conflict of interest with the entire country, in that the interests of the collective society may sometime abut against the interests of the individual with that collective. The president’s focus belongs on one side of this and it should be exclusive.
This may sound callous, and some may get the impression that I am asserting that the president should be somehow disallowed from acting on the impulse of personal conscience and offering resources that he can afford to give to a place where they are needed. But I am certainly not claiming that the president should avoid charity in his capacity as leader of the nation. What I am suggesting is that if a letter deeply affects the president and fills him with a sense of urgency about getting involved, he ought to take any money that he would have offered to the individuals involved an instead give it to some sort of organization with the task of helping people facing the associated difficulties.
Solving individual problems is actually insufficiently ambitious for the president. There are other individuals and organizations that do or could have that as their particular function, and for such people solving the problem of one would be a sublime accomplishment. For the president, solving one person’s problem and failing to address the root cause of it is abject failure. Part of the symbolism of cutting a check to a specific individual is that the president is effectively acknowledging that he doesn’t have the tools at his disposal to fix the problem on a broader basis. If I were to ever receive a reply letter from the president, I would much prefer to read a note that says “Sit tight, the country is about to get better,” than to receive a check with a memo that says, “Momentary, personal fix.”
I remember actually being quite angry when that young man got a job by way of the good fortune of having Obama visit his town and being handed the microphone during the Q & A. My first impulse was to wonder about what the president was going to do now for the thousands of other college graduates, me among them, who couldn’t find work. Despite the human interest story of this one solitary man’s struggles being over, the fact was that the situation that created those struggles hadn’t changed a whit. And that being the case, on a certain level of analysis, the effect of helping that one man to find a job was that that job wasn’t available to someone else who needed one, and perhaps just as desperately.
I wonder, though, whether the president and his staff felt accomplished and satisfied when they helped that one individual. I suppose you have to hold onto those things when you have the world’s problems weighing on you personally every day. But there can be no justification for taking the optimistic view that comes of a narrow focus and thereby losing an appropriate sense of urgency about what needs to be done on a legislative level. The unfortunate truth is that when we’re all waiting for the social change that will take this overarching conditions away, doing individual good is sometimes a matter of just shuffling the misery around.
If that’s what you and I have to do, then so be it. We make the best of a bad situation. But the president, and especially this president, should be far better than that. There are a precious few people in the country who actually have the power to fix the conditions that keep the rest of us sharing that misery. If I am to have any faith in them whatsoever, I need to believe that they are not playing favorites among us and that escape from those conditions is not award by lottery to people who’ve had their letters read by the highest office in the land, while the rest of us wait for change forever.