The U.S. President's New Lead Speechwriter

February 19, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

The written words of Cody Keenan MPP 2008, held a national audience Tuesday (Feb. 12) as they communicated to Americans the direction of their country. Keenan was recently named President Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter and took the lead on the president’s State of The Union address.

“The State of the Union Address is a different beast – we probably tossed six or seven drafts back and forth,” writes Keenan.

“The president was a successful writer before he had any speechwriters, so he takes his words seriously. He has strong opinions about how to structure an argument, what words to use, the rhythm of his remarks – so generally, we’ll sit down with him and get his thoughts, we call it 'the download,' before beginning any speech of consequence. Then, simply put, our job is to sit down and write what he would write if he weren’t busy leading the free world. And if we don’t hit the target, he’ll take the draft and do some work on it himself.”

Keenan has served on the president’s speechwriting team since the 2008 campaign. Prior to the State of The Union address, he is most recognized for the president’s speech at a Tucson memorial honoring victims of gun violence after a gunman killed six people and gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Keenan looks forward to the opportunities that lie ahead as Obama’s principal speechwriter.

“An ongoing challenge is breaking through a fractured, often trivial, media environment,” writes Keenan. “The era of someone like Walter Cronkite telling the country ‘the way it is’ is long gone. It’s been replaced with 24/7-cable news, twitter, blogs, sound bites measured in seconds, and news cycles measured in minutes. So, with rare exceptions, the ‘bully pulpit’ doesn’t reach as many people as it used to. Our job is to keep the President’s message fresh and arguments compelling even as they’ve been the same for the past six years – through campaigns, through crisis, and through recovery – our economy grows best not from the top-down, but from the middle class out.”

Meet Cody Keenan, Obama’s New Top Speechwriter The Wall Street Journal — Cody Keenan, 32 years old, is transitioning to his new job as the president’s director of speechwriting on the biggest of stages, collaborating with Mr. Obama on the address that he will deliver Tuesday to Congress and millions of TV viewers at home.

For the last eight years, Jon Favreau has been entrusted with Mr. Obama’s words as his lead speechwriter and a key component of the president’s original team.

Now, with Mr. Favreau preparing to leave his post March 1, Mr. Keenan is taking the lead on penning the State of the Union speech as he moves from deputy director of speechwriting to the top job. read more

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