How an Obama State of the Union speech is born

Olivier Knox
Yahoo News
President Obama fine tunes his State of the Union address with Chief Speechwriter Cody Keenan. Photo released on January 26, 2014
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President Barack Obama fine-tunes his State of the Union address with Chief Speechwriter Cody Keenan. Photo released via Twitter on January 26, 2014. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo via Twitter)

President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech has been coming together, draft by draft, much of it springing from the mind of a quick-witted 33-year-old with a below-ground West Wing office, an above-average thirst for caffeine and a passion for the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan is known to fuel his long hours with “red eyes” — large drip coffees with a shot of espresso for extra kick. Recently, White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri made him a batch of her “energy cookies” — described by someone who has had them as “mini power bars.”

He’s no Raymond Price — the long-ago speechwriter for Richard Nixon who famously wrote the first draft of the 1970 State of the Union on a sleepless three-day blitz powered by “greenies,” amphetamines prescribed by the White House doctor. Instead, in the wee hours, Keenan can make himself a cup of coffee with a Keurig machine given to him by the National Security staff.

The big themes of Obama’s prime-time speech on Tuesday are already broadly clear: The economy, the challenge of income inequality, his health care overhaul, the Iran nuclear negotiations, and other issues.

But how do those items and the many smaller initiatives make their way into Obama’s State of the Union address?

As early as December, policy aides prepare vast briefing books — including background information on various domestic and foreign policy priorities.

The first week of January, Obama huddles with senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, Palmieri, and Keenan to lay out the broad lines of what he wants to say.

After that, the White House does its version of what might be called “crowdsourcing” — aides in charge of correspondence and outreach collect individual Americans’ stories that might serve to illustrate the policies highlighted in the speech.

Then the work to produce a first draft gets going. Producing that first version generates most of the all-nighters.

The process gets a bit easier after that. Typically, the team goes through about five or six drafts over the course of the week leading up to the actual speech. Obama, who is heavily involved in the process, tends to work on the speech at night.

The president talks to outside experts — he has reportedly been consulting historians since at least 2011 to help him “find a language in which he could address the problem of growing inequality without being accused of class warfare.”

His edits to various drafts sometimes come in the form of cramped but tidy notes in black pen on a yellow legal pad paper. He’s been known to cross out entire pages.

“By Sunday, the speech is generally locked in, in terms of substance,” Keenan’s predecessor, Jon Favreau, told Yahoo News.

“We’re still making changes the day of, but they’re minor rhetorical changes, or for tone, or policy fact checks or research fact checks,” said Favreau, whose departure to start a communications firm set the stage for Keenan’s elevation to the top speechwriting job.

The research team “keeps us honest,” he said, joking that “you can’t say ‘Americans are the hardest-working people on Earth,' because the Swedes put in more hours.”

Obama’s involvement shifts over the course of the process, from primarily being concerned about the broad themes and policy initiatives to poring over the language down to the placement of individual semicolons.

But “the only ritual he really has before every big speech,” Favreau said, is that “he needs just a couple of minutes of complete ‘alone time,’ when no one is asking him anything or talking at him, when he can just collect his thoughts.”

Keenan explained in an interview with Yahoo News last year what it’s like when you disagree with a presidential edit — when you tell the most powerful man in the world that he’s wrong about what he should say.

“At this point, you know, I don’t push back aggressively, but I can argue pretty well for a point. I’d say the first couple of years I wouldn’t dare to do that,” he said.

Keenan admitted he “rarely” wins those arguments.

“And when you do, he never lets you forget that you made him take out something he liked,” Keenan said with a chuckle.

So what’s going to be in it?

State of the Union speeches are frequently lampooned — “I come before you tonight to speak in ringing tones and stare into the middle distance.” They can include dramatic calls for action that never generate any (a return to the moon by 2020 to set up a manned mission to Mars?). Senators get in on the act by making a big show of sitting with someone from the other party. Senators seem to enjoy that seating arrangement, but it’s like the political equivalent of a comb over: It looks weird and fools no one.

The White House has already showed a little leg, indicating that Obama will make a renewed push for immigration reform, call for raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits, push for some kind of climate change and deliver a warning that when Congress won’t act, he will seek to use his executive powers.

But the president’s recent schedule offers clues to other policy initiatives that don’t cost much and could get bipartisan support — classic State of the Union fodder.

On Wednesday, Obama formally accepted a bipartisan commission’s assessment on how to make voting easier. He also met with the White House Council of Women and Girls to receive its report on “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” and announced the creation of a White House “Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.” Last week, he and first lady Michelle Obama convened a White House summit on college accessibility and affordability.

On the day of the speech, Obama will surely follow the tradition of having special guests join the first lady — Americans whose story helps him illustrate his points. Those guests are known as “Skutniks,” named for Lenny Skutnik, whom then-President Ronald Reagan invited to attend the 1982 State of the Union in honor of his heroic response to the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac two weeks earlier.

Will the speech work? That’s a whole other story.

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