President-elect Obama has made it abundantly clear that he is worried not only about the economy, but the degree to which he will irrevocably lose contact with ordinary people doing ordinary things on a day-to-day basis.
This is not a trivial concern. It has been an awfully long time since President Thomas Jefferson threw open the doors of the Executive Mansion so that the public might browse the rooms of state at their leisure. Isolation rarely does a U.S. president any favors-apart from the security issue. After all, who could forget President George H. W. Bush's astonishment at seeing an electronic scanner at a grocery store he once visited?
While President Obama is likely to be rather busy beginning on January 21, 2009, there are five things he can probably fit into his schedule to ensure that he does not completely lose touch with the average American's train of thought or the national zeitgeist.
First, the President should make a point of watching all the fake news programs broadcast by Comedy Central. This includes the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, and Chocolate News with David Alan Grier. Come to think of it, somebody should be put on detail to Tivo practically everything on Comedy Central, so the President can watch at will. This is important.
Second, the President should make time to personally scan the pages of at least five extra newspapers a week. I'm not talking about the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune. I mean papers that serve smaller cities and rural towns, like the Aberdeen Times (Aberdeen, Idaho) or The New Era (Parker, South Dakota). He should of course skip the AP wire retreads of national news stories and head straight for the local metro section. Newspapers may be a 20th century medium, but they're still the single best way to figure out what real communities are up to, what they care about, and what's worrying them.
Third, if he's not already in the habit of doing so, Obama should keep a current bestseller or two by his bedside table (alongside all those dull briefing papers). I'm not necessarily talking about literature here, but the novels, memoirs, and biographies that all sorts of people read for pleasure-mysteries, thrillers, books about angels, recovering addicts, a sentimental dog book or two. These books may not suit the President's personal taste, but they nonetheless reveal something about which way public tastes are trending. If nothing else, reading this type of stuff makes for an easy conversational gambit when meeting new people (excluding foreign Heads of State).
Fourth, the President should visit at least three public schools-elementary, middle, and high school-in Washington, D.C. a couple of times a year, and spend quality time talking with the students and teachers. For too long, sitting presidents have totally ignored their own backyard, as if the White House were surrounded by a moat filled with deadly snakes. The Capital contains some of the lowest-functioning schools in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in America. Anyone who spends time in these schools is in for a real eye-opener-an unvarnished look at what decades of under-investment, inattention, and declining expectations have wrought. Obama has met D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, but that's only the first step toward staying in touch.
And finally, since it appears that Obama and his former campaign staff are eager to keep their vast Internet address book up to date, someone ought to turn this into a regular feedback loop. Build a website that serves exclusively as an outside brain trust-a portal that enables regular folks to write open letters to the President on any topic of their choosing. Obama could browse this site at will, or at least read a sample of letters on a regular basis. I've always been suspicious about how much correspondence addressed to the President of the United States actually sneaks past the guard dogs. In the Internet age, there's no reason why the President cannot read for himself-unfiltered-what people are saying.
I know the new President will have an awful lot on his plate. But if he's sincere in his desire to retain some degree of normalcy, he'll have to make a deliberate effort to schedule real-life experiences beyond those afforded by his immediate family. Pricking the hermetically sealed Presidential bubble for a whiff of fresh air won't be easy, but it's time we had a leader who at least made the effort.