Obama speechwriter discusses economic speech, ‘unfiltered POTUS’

Olivier Knox
President Barack Obama meets with Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan
President Barack Obama meets with Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan in the Oval Office, July 19, 2013. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)

President Barack Obama’s speech on economic policy Wednesday will be the first in an ambitious series of six addresses laying out a sweeping vision for America’s future. The philosophy at the core of the campaign will be familiar, but there will be “aggressive new ideas.”

That’s according to Cody Keenan, the speechwriter in charge of crafting what may be Obama’s most far-reaching second-term effort to get Americans to sign on to his plans.

Keenan sat down with Yahoo News for an exclusive interview in his office in the basement of the West Wing, a windowless space with a ceiling so low that the president’s head brushes it when he pays a visit. The walls are covered in political memorabilia, and the famous “bikini graph” on his desk sits next to a can of Red Bull.

Keenan, who at 32 holds the lofty title of director of speechwriting, pulled the curtain back on the process of writing a major presidential address. He also described how Mike Ditka could have kept Obama from reaching the White House, and what happens if you argue with the president about what he should say — and win.

Obama’s six speeches will cover education, housing, retirement security, health care, poverty and jobs, Keenan said, lightly tapping a cup of black, unsweetened iced coffee on his desk.

"In the weeks ahead — especially when it comes to college costs, which is something he’s obsessed with — we’ll have some aggressive new ideas,” said Keenan.

The president is giving the first one at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., because that's where he laid out his economic philosophy in 2005 in a commencement address generally regarded as his first speech on the issue as a national political figure.

The economy remains the top issue on the mind of Americans, and top White House aides acknowledge that many are not seeing first-hand the benefits of steady but slow growth — which may explain the president’s poor ratings on the economy.

Obama himself told supporters late Monday that he doesn’t think the speech “is going to change any minds.” But politicians of both parties are mindful that the 2014 midterm elections are just around the corner.

The Republican response to Obama’s planned speech has been instructive. After initially scoffing that the White House was cooking up a “nothingburger,” they have aggressively tried to set the debate on their terms.

So how does a speech like this come into being?

Keenan formally got the assignment in early June when senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer wandered into the speechwriter’s office and announced that the president had decided he wanted to return to Knox College to deliver an economic policy address in mid-July.

“It was just kind of a question of when we would go back, and now seemed as good a time as any,” the speechwriter said.

So Keenan booked an Oval Office meeting with Obama at 10:30 a.m. on June 14 to discuss the themes and structure of the address. Pfeiffer, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors also took part. So did Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri and Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco.

“I’ll just ask for some time with the president to get what I call ‘The Download.’ And I’ll just take my laptop in there and let him talk for 20 or 30 minutes while I just furiously take notes,” Keenan says. “He’ll give you the basic structure to go on.”

Keenan emerged with “with three or four pages of unfiltered POTUS,” he said, using the popular D.C. acronym for “President of the United States.” After doing some research (and being especially productive while much of the staff was with Obama in Africa), he put together a 20-page outline, which turned into a first draft that landed on the president’s desk July 14.

Keenan opened a folder labeled “Presidential Statement,” pulling out four pages of cramped but tidy notes in black pen on yellow legal pad paper — Obama’s copious edits. With a wry smile, he held up page 4 of that early version, entirely crossed out by the president.

“He’ll kind of destroy the first draft a little bit,” Keenan said. “I saw his point. His argument here was just ‘too long.’” So RIP, page 4.

The drafts — Obama has seen six — “get tidier and tidier,” and Wednesday’s speech is pretty much done, “which is great 24 hours out.”

Keenan has been discussing the changes with the president “during his lunchtime” for about 10 minutes, then working to turn around another draft overnight.

What if he disagrees with a presidential edit? How do 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.”

Does he ever win those kinds of debates?

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

Keenan has a team of four domestic policy writers helping out, but Obama’s top economic advisers see every draft. They include Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council; and Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell.

“But it’s mostly a back-and-forth between me and him,” he said, meaning Obama.

The days start at 7:45 a.m. (that’s when McDonough holds a regular meeting in his office), and for the past two weeks they’ve ended between midnight and 2 a.m.

Asked how quickly he plans to chase the coffee with the Red Bull, Keenan replied “that’s for later,” when he needs a boost around 10-11 p.m. His most productive hours, he said, are between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the flood of emails thins to a trickle and there are fewer people, if any, popping into his office.

No, he doesn’t get presidential voice mails at 3 a.m. “He is a night owl, though,” Keenan said. And “I’m not a morning guy.”

Keenan's office walls are covered with mementos, including a Ted Kennedy poster inscribed with a note from the late senator, for whom Keenan used to work. Guests can also spot a photograph of Keenan, dressed as a pirate, talking with Obama. The picture, autographed by the president, was part of Obama’s jokey speech to the 2009 White House Correspondents Dinner.

In a room packed with souvenirs that would make a political junkie drool, what's his favorite? A White House gift shop football signed by members of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. The space shuttle Challenger tragedy sidetracked their trip to the White House. So Obama invited them to visit in October 2011.

"You try to act pretty cool when important people come around the White House. This was the one day I just threw it out the window," Keenan said.

"Ditka was just the nicest guy," he added. "Mike Ditka could have prevented Barack Obama from becoming president, because he almost ran against him in '04, in Illinois, and he might have won."