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Obama Gets Real, Meeting The Authors Behind White House Letters

President Obama sits down to have lunch with Rebekah Erler at Matt's Bar in Minneapolis on Thursday. Obama spent a day with Erler, who wrote the White House about her struggles to make ends meet.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama sits down to have lunch with Rebekah Erler at Matt's Bar in Minneapolis on Thursday. Obama spent a day with Erler, who wrote the White House about her struggles to make ends meet.

When President Obama delivered a speech about the economy in Minneapolis on Friday, a woman named Rebekah Erler sat in the audience with her family.

The White House billed the president's two-day trip to Minnesota as at least in part a "day in the life of Rebekah" — and it's a throwback, in a sense, to a time before Barack Obama was a household name.

In 2007, when his candidacy was still considered a long shot, then-Sen. Obama spent a day walking in the shoes of a home health aide.

"I'm Pauline Beck. I'm a SEIU home care worker in Alameda County, and today Sen. Barack Obama walked a day in my shoes," she says, mispronouncing Obama's first name in a video posted by the labor union that arranged it.

In it, Obama is young and energetic, and doesn't have a hint of gray hair.

"I prepared breakfast for him. I helped to make the bed. I cleaned the house. I did some laundry," Obama says, speaking from the home of one of Beck's clients, an elderly man.

Obama once described it as one of his favorite days of the campaign, and he still talks about that experience, said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president.

"He does. He does. He talks about that day. We joke about it," Pfeiffer said. "There are fewer of us around now who were there for that. But that day meant a lot to him."

Going back and watching the 2007 video, it's striking how now, years later, the president is talking about the same policy prescriptions not as accomplishments, but still as aspirations.

A lot has happened since then.

It was a simpler time, before the Great Recession hit and before congressional gridlock became the norm. And in some ways, it seems like this new "day in the life" campaign, on display recently in Minnesota, is an effort to remind Americans, and maybe Obama himself, of that guy who first ran for president.

"I'm going to let everybody enjoy their burger. And I've got my date over here," said Obama, sitting down for cheese-stuffed burgers and iced tea at a place called Matt's Bar in Minneapolis.

His date was Rebekah Erler, a 36-year-old accountant and mother of two pre-school-aged boys. Her husband's construction business went under in the recession, but they've worked their way back and even recently bought their first home. She had written the president a letter telling him her story.

"I'm a little surprised that mine made it all the way to your desk," Erler said.

Although the trip was supposed to be a day in the life of Rebekah, it was more of a lunch meeting followed by a day in the life of Barack Obama. After lunch they took the motorcade to a town-hall-style event, where Obama described their conversation to the crowd.

"Just talking about how she had done everything right, her and her husband; she's working hard and raising two beautiful kids, and she has a great life," he said. "But it's a struggle, and wondering if anybody in Washington knows it. You know, what I told her, and it's the same thing I want to tell all of you, which is, I know it. You're the reason I ran for office."

It's easy to look at this much-hyped day in the life with a lens of cynicism. It makes for pretty pictures on the White House Instagram account, but it also seems to signal a yearning in the president: a desire to connect, both with people outside of the bubble and with the young senator who said hope and change were possible, and not just slogans.

"I was you guys. You know, somebody out here is going through what my mom went through. Somebody out here is going through what my grandma went through. Somebody out here is going through what Michelle and I went through when we were first married and our kids were first born. It's not like I forget," he told the town hall.

A recent Gallup poll put Obama's approval rating at just 41 percent, and odds are against him fulfilling any more big campaign promises in his final two years in office. As he closed his remarks, Obama implored the audience:

"Cynicism is, you know, popular these days, but hope's better."

And harder to come by.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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