January 11th, 2013
08:00 PM ET

Letters to the President #1453: 'The pastor bows out'

Reporter's Note: The president’s team is preparing for his upcoming inaugural. I am too, by writing…as always…a letter a day to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been following the kerfuffle over the pastor who has withdrawn from the inaugural activities after gay rights activists voiced concern over his views. Specifically, everyone seems to be in an uproar over a sermon he gave 15 or so years ago in which he called homosexuality a sin.

Diversity has become a complex thing, hasn’t it?

On one hand, I understand gay rights supporters who would rather not have anyone involved in the inaugural who thinks they are in the wrong. On the other hand, I thought the whole point of diversity was recognizing that people come from many walks of life, with many points of view, and we should all respect and accept each other as we are.

And that, presumably, includes people of faith. Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and anyone else who, based on their honest beliefs, disagree with many of the aspects of what might be called modern morality.

I realize that this is a terribly sensitive subject and you are in a tight spot. You can’t very well appear callous to the feelings of the gay community. Gay voters did, after all, help you get re-elected. But is it right, or fair, to allow one group of your supporters to drive another group into retreat this way? Even as you speak up for gay rights and lend your support to the cause, do you also have a responsibility to defend the right of those who disagree?

I don’t have the answers, but I do think the issue is more complex than this latest dustup would suggest. If those who think homosexuality is wrong are not overtly welcome at the inaugural…meaning, your White House won’t defend their right to be there…then does that suggest about half the nation is not welcome?

Sure, public views on this are changing. We, as a people, are growing much more accepting of gays and lesbians. The questions remain: Does that mean we can no longer accept those who have not made that metamorphosis? Are they to be exiled within their own country? And how diverse will our nation ultimately be, if whichever side wins any argument is able to chase the losers from the public arena?

I know you’re in a difficult position on this one, and I’m eager to see if you have anything to say on the subject. Give me a call if you have a moment.


January 10th, 2013
07:55 PM ET

Letters to the President #1452: 'Breaking up the boys club'

Reporter's Note: The president is under fire over a shortage of women in top spots in his second term.

Dear Mr. President,

The wonderful musician Todd Rundgren took heat from the politically correct crowd years ago over his song, “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” but I wonder if you might want to make that a theme around the White House for a while. Seriously.

I’m sure your team is not too happy about critics pointing out the dearth of women headed for top slots of your second administration. I’m equally sure you’ll take steps in the next few weeks to draw as much attention as possible to every woman you appoint. But the fact remains, it is unlikely that you’ll fill even half of your cabinet with females at any point. You could. You just won’t.

For all of that prattling during the election about a Republican “war on women,” it does not appear that you and your party are much more welcoming to women. A little more, yes, but hardly enough to brag about.

Think about it. How can you or anyone else justify the fact that women are always a minority in the top positions, whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge? There are 311,000,000 people in this country, and more than half of them are female. Certainly you could have found enough to take charge of half of the power positions in D.C. And yet, no president ever has, including you.

I can formulate no reasonable explanation other than this: You’re not trying. Like most presidents, you’ve cozied up to your cronies…people who you like, trust, or have known a long time…and they are predominantly men.

It’s your choice, of course. Who am I or anyone else to dictate whom you should rely on? But don’t expect women, or those who defend their rights, to appreciate what you’ve done. Whether you intended it or not, it feels like a bait and switch; like once you had racked up enough votes from women to secure your re-election, you…like Washington always does…went right back to ignoring them.

Maybe that’s too harsh…but just saying…

Hope all is well.


January 9th, 2013
08:12 PM ET

Letters to the President #1451: 'Fighting close to home'

Reporter's Note: The president has initiated an effort to increase gun control. It is a difficult battle and the subject of today’s letter.

Dear Mr. President,

My father always said, “If you have to fight someone, make sure you don’t fight in his neighborhood.” The wisdom was driven by common sense. On another guy’s home turf you ran the risk of him having many friends who might step in to the fray even if you secured an advantage in the initial clash.

My brother experienced that first hand. One night after a football game at his high school, a bunch of kids in a hostile neighborhood began taunting and then attacking him on the way home. Now my brother is, and always has been, one of the single toughest and strongest human beings you’ll ever meet. He does not back down from a fight easily and seldom has cause to, but that night he ended up running for his life while pursued by a half dozen furious teenagers. When he thundered up the back steps into the house a hail of rocks cracked off of the siding and roof as they tried to get in some final shots.

So the point stands: Only the foolish wander into their enemy’s camp for fisticuffs.

Which is one reason I think your summit meeting on the issue of guns is tricky. At any given moment, both advocates for more control…and advocates against it…may well feel as if they are being lured into a trap. In the first case, there is history to consider. I can’t even count how often I’ve heard politicians rail about the need for new gun regulations, assemble committees to consider the options, and then quietly fade into oblivion a few months later when the noise quiets down. Understandably then, some of the people you may be counting on to push your latest effort may fear they are treading into politically hostile territory…that they will stand up and say bold things, only to have you and other leaders of their cause run away and leave them stranded as soon as the gun lobby punches back.

By the same token, I can imagine that some gun rights advocates and dealers are wary of what you are up to. Sure, you may invite them to the table to discuss these issues, but they may sense a snare in the bushes. To their minds, it is a reasonable suspicion that you might stand them up in a photo op to show how open you are to opposing views, then wallop them with fierce anti-gun legislation.

Like I said, there is reason for both sides to fear being caught in a hostile neighborhood on this issue. And I suspect your success, if there is any to be had, will start with addressing those fears…convincing supporters that you have the political courage to stick with your plans even if you and other Democrats start paying a political price, and convincing opponents that you will indeed consider their thoughts before moving ahead.

Just an idea or two. Hope all is well.


January 8th, 2013
07:23 PM ET

Letters to the President #1450: 'The discipline of champions'

Reporter's Note: The president is preparing for battles over his latest cabinet choices and the debt ceiling. I am, on the other hand, peacefully writing my daily letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

As I predicted, Alabama whipped Notre Dame badly last night to seize the national championship. Hand over the trophy, drop the confetti, let the seniors dash off to the NFL, it’s done.

Like many Americans, I had anticipated the game for weeks only to realize it was pretty much over in a matter of minutes. From the first drive it was clear that the Tide was going to wash over the Irish like a rogue wave. I was rooting for Alabama, but by the start of the second quarter my wife and I were both squirming. It was just that painful to watch Notre Dame suffer such a drubbing. If it weren’t for Brent Musburger’s wildly amusing musings about A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend I might have turned the game off.

Now certainly there were sports analysts who thought the contest would turn out differently. They predicted that Notre Dame’s heart, passion, and desperation would somehow come together in a magic alchemy that would overwhelm Alabama’s discipline, talent, and virtually seamless teamwork. Their prognostications were wrong, just as such predictions almost always are when built on hope and fanciful thinking rather than a bedrock of facts.

This is worth keeping in mind as your second term moves forward. Buoyed by your re-election success and some of the seemingly hapless mistakes of the Republicans, you may well imagine yourself to be poised for greater victory. Many of the Democrats who support you clearly think that is the case. Talk to them, read their comments online, listen to them on NPR call in shows, and you’ll hear endless optimism about all the great things you can accomplish now that the Republicans have been routed.

While I would not presume to dictate your plans or policies, I would urge you to be careful about such “rah rah” calls to attack. Remember what happened to Notre Dame’s football players as you proceed. They were and are a good team. They enjoyed an excellent season, and rolled over one opponent after another. It was not beyond comprehension that they might find a way to beat Alabama. But they did not. In the end, Alabama proved a superior power in every way. All the fire and passion of Notre Dame’s players and fans were not nearly enough to make their championship dreams come true.

So if you aim for big goals in your second term, you may be well advised to shut the doors against the cheers and enthusiasm. Once the Inaugural is over, your strength will not come from the screaming fans, but rather from hard, unblinking, pure politics; from your team’s ability to play the game. Feeling good about your cause will not get the job done. Thinking you are right won’t do it either. Indeed, the danger of Democratic enthusiasm right now is that it could easily make you think victory is easily in your grasp…when history shows it may yet be very hard won.


January 7th, 2013
07:45 PM ET

Letters to the President #1449: 'The national championship'

Reporter's Note: The president is trying to line up his new cabinet, amid…as is typical…a lot of conflict. In the meantime, I am writing another letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

Happy Monday and a happy start to the Mardi Gras season! I realize that not everyone pays much attention to the passage of Kings Day, but we certainly do around our house. Tonight, however, our celebration will take an unusual turn as we focus on the national college football championship.

And let me say, with precious little hesitation, that I think Alabama is going to romp on Notre Dame.

I’m sure fans of the Irish hate to hear that, but it seems almost inevitable. Over the past few years, the Crimson Tide has turned into a team that goes beyond any normal description of a college sports franchise. Their discipline is becoming the stuff of legend; college kids standing as calmly as seasoned professionals even when the score board swings against them, confident in their ability to storm back before the final second ticks away.

Their depth is awe inspiring. Mow down the top player in almost any position, and someone nearly as strong and talented steps right into the gap.

And their tenacity is just unstoppable. Ask LSU.

Sure, they can be vulnerable. Texas A&M managed to spin up just the right combination to take down the Tide, but that lightning seems unlikely to strike again.

Bottom line: It is nice to watch the underdog wage a good fight, and fun to watch them win. And make no mistake, Notre Dame, despite being ranked higher, is the underdog. But part of what makes that fun is that it rarely happens. When the kickoff comes in little more than an hour, I imagine the kids from South Bend will have all they can do to standup to the team from Tuscaloosa. And the mighty SEC will roll on…

Thought you might be interested in chatting it all over since you’re a sports fan, so I’m around if you want to call. But…uh…wait for halftime, ok?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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