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January 6th, 2013
10:02 AM ET

Letters to the President #1448: 'Resting and returning'

Reporter's Note: The president has outlined an ambitious agenda for his second term. Hopefully he’s left enough time to read my latest letter.

Dear Mr. President,

I’m slowly trying to ease back into decent mileage with my running. After my last 50-miler in November and the 10K I ran five days later, I was pretty much shot. I needed a break and I took one.

For all of December up until Christmas Day I did not run a step. I rested my legs and body. I ate like a horse. I did not get enough sleep, but I grabbed as much as I could when I could. It all helped. Sure, the first few returns to the trails felt very clunky and I have almost certainly stacked on some extra weight. But overall I seem to have a tiny bit of spring in my step again. I’m looking forward to the runs again, instead of being beaten up by them.

I have loosely set my sights on making the Gettysburg marathon in the spring my first one of the new year. I feel a little tempted to try to slip into the Bull Run 50 Miler again, but I really think that would be a mistake. Too much mileage too soon, and I fear it would make a mess out of the rest of the year of running.

I mention all of this, because while I know you are eager to make the most of your upcoming second term, I think you should also make some realistic assessments about how tired you are, how beaten up your team is, and base on that precisely when you should launch the initiatives that interest you the most.

Taking down time is ridiculously hard, especially if you are an overachiever. (And by definition I think that word applies to all presidents.) But it is also awfully important.

Some of your new plans face formidable opposition; opponents who will not hesitate to bring every bit of their powers to bear against you. If you engage them without a clear, rested mind, and forces who are ready to rumble, I think you’ll regret it.

So enjoy a little down time and don’t rush back to the office too soon. Effective work is what matters, whether it starts right away or in a few weeks.

Call if you get a chance.

Regards,
Tom

January 5th, 2013
07:45 PM ET

Letters to the President #1447: 'Computing the chips'

Reporter's Note: There are several important football games on TV this weekend, and I assume the president might watch some. I mean, when he’s finished reading my daily letter.

Dear Mr. President,

As I write this, I am sampling some fairly delicious baby back rib flavor potato chips. It is the right kind of thing for Wildcard Weekend in the NFL, but the bag containing these delectable morsels has puzzled me a bit. Right at the top, in a shiny red oval, are the words “Limited Edition.”

What can this possibly mean?

At first it might be making reference to some other product being sold with an ad on the bag, or perhaps a prize being given away to lucky potato chip crunchers, but no, it appears to be making reference to the chips themselves. So again, I must ask: What does this mean?

Even in our label crazed, fad loving society I have trouble imagining that enough people have established chip collections to make this a viable piece of marketing. Seriously, I have an active imagination, but I can’t see some guy in Cleveland staring at a blank spot on the shelf saying, “If only I had the baby back rib chips, my collection would be complete!”

I assume they (meaning the chip company) are trying to convince consumers that this is really something special, to suggest that if they don’t buy this bag of chips right now, they’ll miss out on this rare tasty treat and it may never come their way again. I have had the same thought about the McRib sandwich, btw.

It seems a little silly. The chips are good, but not so rare or special that my life would be empty without them.

Still, I think it says less about the chip company and more about our nation as a whole that such a scheme is even attempted. You’ve got to be living pretty high on the hog, after all, to be worried about whether you have the latest exclusive chip design in the cupboard.

Call if you get a moment. I’m around watching the games.

Regards,
Tom

January 4th, 2013
07:10 PM ET

Letters to the President #1446: 'The days ahead'

Reporter's Note: The new unemployment figures remain pretty bad, so by comparison perhaps the president will find my daily letter pretty good.

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations on your re-election! The electoral college has finally made it official, so if you had any lingering doubts about faithless electors or similar nonsense, you can put them to rest. You have a date with the Chief Justice next to the Capitol in a about two and a half weeks, and then it is off to the second term races as it were.

Which, honestly, is both good news and bad news. Good for you that you won, but bad considering all that remains on the agenda.

The latest unemployment numbers this morning, for example, are still nothing to brag about. I've looked at a lot of economic data, so I know that the economy truly is slowly recovering. I mean, of course, if it continues acting the way it has for the past couple of years. But the process is going so slowly that it is like watching the sun move across the sky. The movement is almost imperceptible.

And frankly, you and I both know it would not take much to make it all fall apart again. Trouble in Europe. A distant conflict. A financial scandal of sufficient size.

On top of which, look at all the projects you are taking on! Immigration reform, gun control, the next debt ceiling debate.

So I'll say congratulations but what I really mean is good luck. I suspect any president in your shoes would need it.

Regards,
Tom

January 3rd, 2013
07:33 PM ET

Letters to the President #1445: 'Taking responsibility for good...and bad'

Reporter's Note: The payroll tax holiday has expired, so we’re all pretty much paying more this year. Thank goodness I have my extra income from writing these letters…oh wait, I don’t get paid for this…hmmm…

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been thinking all day today about something that just drives me tree-climbing-bark-chewing crazy. From the time my kids were very small I’ve taught them that decent people take as much responsibility for the bad news they must deliver as the good. If you have poor report card, you must tell your parents as readily as you would about straight A’s. If you scratch the car, you must report that with the same alacrity with which you’d mention that you filled it with gas.

I know this is not easy. It requires a depth of character that puts the good of others, whether a family, a school, or a neighborhood, above your own. But it is the sort of thing we should strive for even if we know from the start we can never be perfect at it.

So it makes my head spin to work in D.C. where all you political types seem to work aggressively counter to that ethos. My latest case in point: The payroll tax. When you were running for re-election, you said time and time that you’d reduced the tax burden on almost everyone…and a central mechanism of this claim was this payroll tax holiday. So if you wanted credit then for lowering taxes in this fashion, should you not also accept responsibility now for raising them?

Understand, I am emphatically not complaining about the act itself. I fully understand that the reduction in payroll taxes over the past couple of years was a temporary thing. It was called a “holiday” specifically because it was not going to last. And considering all of our budget problems, I can easily see the logic in letting it expire now and expecting everyone to pay more.

But I think people would trust politicians a lot more if you…and all your colleagues, Democratic and Republican…would just be a lot more forthcoming about these matters. I wish you’d campaigned by saying, “Hey, I’ve given almost everyone a tax break in the past couple of years because I wanted to spur our economy. We will be taking that back shortly after I am re-elected and your taxes will go up, because frankly we can’t sustain such a break indefinitely. But I still think it was the right move and I’d appreciate your support.”

I’m sure that is a ridiculous way of campaigning, and Axelrod would have probably thrown himself into the river. But I think it might be a great way of leading and restoring a sense among voters that you political types can be trusted.

Just a thought. I hope all is well where you are. Call if you can.

Regards,
Tom

January 2nd, 2013
09:02 PM ET

Letters to the President #1444: 'Cutting a messy deal'

Reporter's Note: Republicans and Democrats in Congress finally struck a deal to avoid the so called fiscal cliff. The president is relieved. I mean, he’s relieved to receive my daily letter…who knows how he feels about the budget deal?

Dear Mr. President,

If there is one message we can take away from the past few days it is this: Government is messy. Messy as a new puppy, or a teenager, or my garage.

Striking that deal on the fiscal cliff is an accomplishment, yes, but look at all the carnage that surrounds it. It came so late that neither party can really, reasonably expect anyone to admire their efforts on this front. It included, as legislation so often does, items that were rushed in at the last moment that even now are making watchdog groups raise their eyebrows. And most notably, somehow in the rush to deal with all that the Republicans in the House sidestepped approving aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy, and no matter what their intentions were, that landed like a hog falling off a building in New York and New Jersey.

Probably one of the messiest parts of all to this however, is the end of the payroll tax holiday. To be honest, very few people…including most of us in the media…said much about it until right up until nearly the end of the year, but this is a change that is absolutely going to cost a lot of middle class families money. As best we can compute it, the additional taxes for those folks (or the return to standard taxation, as it is probably more accurately describes) means most middle income families will have hundreds or thousands of dollars less in their pockets this year…and the next, and the next, and on and on, because that money is going to the government.

I mention it, because I think an awful lot of people did not see this coming, and while they will get used to it, I would not be surprised if some of them also resented it a bit. Who will pay the price politically? Well, maybe no one. Maybe it’s not enough money to make that kind of a difference. But coming as it did as yet another messy part…a nasty surprise…in a very messy deal, I would not bet on that.

I hope all is well. Call if you can.

Regards,
Tom

January 1st, 2013
07:41 PM ET

Letters to the President #1443: 'New year...same old scene'

Reporter's Note: House Republicans are balking at the fiscal cliff deal struck in the Senate. The president is waiting to see what happens, and presumably reading my daily letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

Here it is a brand new year and I’ve started off by making one of my same old mistakes. After the Senate approved its version of the fiscal cliff bill, I allowed myself to get hopeful that an end to this latest kerfuffle was in sight. To quote a Peanuts character, “What a fool I was!”

Do you have a shovel I can borrow? I think I should start 2013 by burying my expectations. I’m not going to expect a budget. I’m not going to look for accountability. I’m going to give up on the idea of transparency (heck, all of the rest of you have) and I’m absolutely not going to waste one moment thinking that our elected leaders are ever going to put the good of the nation above…or even on par with…their own good.

You’ve often preached that whole message about how we should believe in hope and change. Well, next time you may as well bring a string orchestra to provide an inspiring soundtrack, because I’m not sure that’s going to fly anymore without some help. Let’s face it, D.C. does not want to change. Your Democrats don’t want to consider for a moment that the Republicans may be right about some things; the Republicans, likewise, won’t give your side any credence; and all of us who just want to see a functional government are left tuning our fiddles while Rome burns.

Every one in this town seems to agree that hard choices are ahead, and that we’ll have to make sacrifices to get our economy and our federal budget healthy again. But the minute it comes down to actually doing those things, all of you elected officials start coming up with excuses as to why your constituents should be exempt from that process. As long as that continues; as long as Republican and Democratic leaders alike insist on retreating over and over and over again to the same philosophical barricades because they’re afraid of paying a political price, I suspect the whole nation will continue paying a real price.

After all, we’re doing it right now, and starting another new year off on the wrong foot.

Other than that, I had a lovely celebration with my family late last evening after covering the Capitol Hill nonsense all day. You should have been there!

Regards,
Tom

December 31st, 2012
03:33 PM ET

Letters to the President #1442: 'New Year's Eve'

Reporter's Note: President Obama and members of Congress have been grinding away on a possible deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. I have been grinding away on my final letter of 2012 to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

I was all set for my big fancy dinner with my family tonight to mark the end of the old year and the start of the new one, and here I am at the office instead, once again dealing with the fiscal cliff and I have no idea if I will be able to make it to the table before the coffee is served. You and your Congressional pals, Democratic, Republican, and Independent have managed…like a bunch of teenagers with a homework assignment…to put off the task until the last possible moment.

What a sad way to end the year.

Whether we get some sort of deal by midnight or not, I must say it is almost incomprehensible that this is how Washington does business. While you seem to enjoy blaming the endless procrastination on Congress, with all respect, you are part of that equation too.

And you know what I think the real issue is? A complete lack of courage in Washington. While there are some good people in elected office, much of their goodness seems to be trumped by their fear of losing power or position. So they stand for nothing, they take no risks, and they let the calendar run out on their responsibilities over and over again in hopes that someone else will step forward and take a chance on a solution. Then if the proposal works, they can say they liked it all along; and if it does not, they can argue that they were never involved.

Honestly, I’d like to end 2012 on a positive note, but this has eaten at me for twelve months, and it is difficult to burn into the final day watching both parties do it again. Sure, people on each side say they are standing up for their party’s principles, but what I think they are really doing is chanting talking points, ducking responsibility, and desperately hoping the problem solves itself.

So here, in the 11th hour, is a resolution I wish each party would take to heart: Quit wasting time blaming the opposition. Of course the other side opposes you. That is what they do. Start finding ways to get beyond the opposition and make good things happen.

All the best as the year winds down. Call if you want to talk.

Regards,
Tom

December 30th, 2012
09:30 AM ET

Letters to the President #1441: 'New Year's plans'

Reporter's Note: President Obama has been working on budget matters for weeks. I’ve been working on my latest letter to the White House for…oh, gosh, I guess five or six minutes.

Dear Mr. President,

It appears that my family and I have found an excellent place for dinner on New Year’s Eve. We’re expecting a delicious series of courses at a French place near our home, and my mouth is already fairly watering. So if you were thinking of calling at the last minute for us to come to the White House, too late, we’ve got plans! Ha!

Speaking of which, this dinner reservation produced a wonderful joke, albeit in a bit of a Crane brothers motif. My older daughter, who is fluent in French, was surveying the menu and said to my wife and me, “By the way, what is direct translation of duck confit?” To which I replied, “Duck with feet.” Ha! Yes, I realize the cornerstone of the joke resides in Spanish…but…oh well…

I mentioned the other day that my attempts to learn Spanish remain mired in inaction and have for several years now. I have a functional grasp of the language. Should I wake up and find myself mysteriously transported to El Salvador, I could certainly turn to the nearest passerby and confidently say in the native tongue, “Excuse me, sir or madam, I have apparently fallen through a hole in the time/space continuum. Can you point me to the nearest wormhole or airport?”

That said, however, I still find my skills sorely lacking in terms of completeness. I long to converse comfortably about things like soil moisture, favorite pet grooming services, printing presses, botany, and the finer points of ceviche tableware.

So I am flirting with the idea of making this my New Year’s resolution; that I should finally and completely master this language from the south. Or the east. Or frankly, just down the street, depending on how you see things.

Let me know your thoughts on the matter, por favor. Hey! Look, it’s already working!

Regards,
Tom

December 29th, 2012
09:14 AM ET

Letters to the President #1440: 'Blame it on politics'

Reporter's Note: President Obama is probably busy taking care of some last bits of business before the year runs out. So am I.

Dear Mr. President,

You made a comment last night as you talked about the fiscal cliff. You said something along the lines of, “People wonder why everything in this town gets put off until the last minute.” Again, those were not your exact words, but that was the general idea. You then went on to say, as presidents often do, that the only thing preventing action is people letting politics get in the way.

Not to be impatient or snarky about it, but you do realize that that is what this town is all about, don’t you?

The only reason you are in office is politics. The only reason your party holds the power it does in this town is politics. The only way that anything ever gets done here is through politics. Yes, it is terribly messy, slow, and at times (like, oh say, for the past several years) dysfunctional. But that’s the way it works.

Sometimes I think this is what your critics mean when they say you are a better candidate than office holder, that you know how to run a good race, but you’re not so skilled at running government. I suspect they are homing in on this disdain you have for politics itself.

Citizens can be dismissive of politics. Indeed, it’s one of our favorite sports. But I don’t think politicians can. If the politics of the nation are not working, no president can afford to stand sneering on the sidelines pretending that situation is not about him, because it almost always is. You can blame the opposition, sure, and the polls may even tell you that voters agree. But in the end, if you don’t get a deal, that failure will come on your watch, and historians will almost certainly say eventually that a fundamental reason was your inability to master the politics of the situation.

You are not now, nor will you likely ever again be a candidate for elected office. You are in the business of politics. This is your craft. There is no one more political in the nation than the President of the United States, and your ability to embrace and excel at politics, especially in your second term, will determine whether you are remembered as a great campaigner…or a great leader.

Best of luck.

Regards,
Tom

December 28th, 2012
07:30 PM ET

Letters to the President #1439: 'Taking stock'

Reporter's Note: Each day since he took office, I have written to President Obama. He has been equally dedicated to acting like he never reads my letters, but I’m onto him…

Dear Mr. President,

So here we are with the year rapidly dying down again and what do we have to show for ourselves? Oh sure, you scored a big re-election victory and I dazzled the kids with some nifty parlor tricks, but often at this time I find myself asking: What lasting gains have I realized in the past twelve months?

Well, for starters I would say I am in overall pretty good health. My return to serious running has been good in virtually every way. I sleep better, feel more energetic, and have a resting heart rate of about 50 bpm. And if some sort of terrorist attack threatens my safety, I can run a flat fifty miles away without stopping. Not bad.

I don’t think I have picked up any new, bad habits. I probably work too hard and go to bed too late. I still enjoy too many sweets, but I don’t drink or smoke.

On the other hand, I have not picked up a lot of new, good habits either. My attempts at learning Spanish still consist largely of turning on CNN Espanol, squinting and saying “que?” I have produced almost no decent drawings or paintings, and my piano and guitar playing are weak to say the least. My attempts at violin, which have never risen above the level of pathetic, have now descended into the category of virtually criminal.

I’ll easily admit that I allowed my sense of humor to suffer a bit this past year, but I blame that on you…or rather on the economy that you keep saying is getting better. I have looked at the numbers. I know you are right. But I also know that the progress is excruciatingly slow, much slower than you predicted, and it’s hard to be jolly amid all that.

I think I need to focus more on my family in the coming year. The pressures of the job, of the election, of the NHL lockout (Ha! Kidding!) have all taken time away from the homefront, I fear. I’m going to do something about that in 2013. More family meals. More trips to the beach. More walking the dog. All good stuff.

And what about you? Yes, I realize that you are President, but we can all improve in some way. So what do you think you should make better in 2013? Think about it, and give me a call. If you’re short on ideas, I have some. Ha!

Regards,
Tom

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