Obama: Staying in Touch

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Mike Allen highlights this exchange from Barack Obama’s interview with Barbara Walters that will be broadcast tonight:

WALTERS: How are you going to get along without your BlackBerry?

OBAMA: (Laughs). This is a problem. … One of the things that I’m going to have to work through is how to break through the isolation and the bubble that exists around the president. And I’m in the process of negotiating with the Secret Service, with lawyers, with White House staff.

WALTERS: You might have a BlackBerry?

OBAMA: Well, I’m negotiating to figure out how can I get information from outside of the 10 or 12 people who surround my office in the White House. Because, one of the worst things I think that could happen to a president is losing touch with what people are going through day to day.

Here’s one idea that might seem a bit retro to the tech-savvy Obamites, but it worked for both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — a special zip code.

The President has groused that the biggest frustration of being in the White House is that it’s so hard to get out of it, to know what is going on out there in America and to benefit from unfiltered common sense. And so when his Georgetown University hallmate David Matter complained in September about the way the organ-donor system allocates livers for transplant, with people in one city waiting months while patients elsewhere can expect them in less than two weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services was ordered to take a new look at who should get to the top of the list. Last spring Carolyn Staley wrote to chide the President about his promise that improving education would be his legacy. Was he aware, she wondered, that he had produced a budget that would cut spending for adult literacy to a level below what it was in the Bush Administration? The next thing she knew, Staley got a call from the budget analyst on whose desk her note had landed. “And who, exactly, are you?” he inquired rather nervously. The deputy director of the National Institute for Literacy, it turns out, and a preacher’s kid who grew up next door to Billy Clinton. Adult-education programs are now scheduled to receive a $95 million boost in this year’s presidential budget.

The idea of a special ZIP code was George Bush’s, but Clinton adopted it shortly after he was elected and soon added a fax number as well. Clinton has given it out to strangers when he wants to hear their stories in full. But most often it’s a way for people like Staley to bypass regular channels, which once left her in tears after she’d poured quarter after quarter into a phone at Washington’s National Airport. From the day she was handed the magic number, Staley has been faxing a stream of jokes, gossip and encouragement. “Hello from one essential government worker to another,” she wrote the day after the first government shutdown began in 1995. “I’m only hearing support for your refusal to sign a bill you don’t believe in.”

UPDATE: Commenter Pourmecoffee wins the thread: If he doesn’t have e-mail, he may never know he’s Muslim.