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The process behind Obama's State of the Union address

February 12, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey, Morgan Little and Christi Parsons
  • President Obama talks with Cody Keenan, now chief White House speechwriter, aboard Air Force One in 2011.
President Obama talks with Cody Keenan, now chief White House speechwriter,… (Pete Souza / White House )

WASHINGTON -- The spotlight may be on President Obama tonight as he delivers the first State of the Union address of his second term, but his remarks mark the culmination of countless laborious hours spent fine-tuning his every word.

With former head speechwriter Jon Favreau having left the White House after spending seven years with Obama, Tuesday night’s address marks new chief speechwriter Cody Keenan’s first time leading the pivotal yearly address.

Administration officials have said that Obama’s speech will include a call for "common ground," between Republicans and Democrats though the speech maintains Obama’s second-term proclivity toward using political pressure to keep Republicans in line with White House policy. Also included will be a declaration that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be halved over the next year.

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Former White House speechwriters describe the stressful buildup to the State of the Union with words like "contentious" and "death march."

Raymond Price, a speechwriter for President Nixon, wrote the first draft of the 1970 address in a sleepless, hallucinatory, three-day binge powered by "greenies" -- amphetamines prescribed by the White House doctor -- Price told Robert Schlesinger, who wrote "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters." Nixon tore the draft apart.

Former speechwriters attribute the difficulty largely to the combination of unusual elements: multiple audiences, a high-profile time slot, broad topics and competing interests.

"Everybody wants their program, their project. You get rooms full of suggestions, memos from Cabinet departments you didn't even know existed," said Joshua Gilder, who worked as a senior speechwriter in the Reagan White House. "They have legitimate reason for trying, but as a speechwriter you have to weigh that against the need for the president to give a coherent message and not put everybody to sleep."

PHOTOS: President Obama’s past

Whether Americans will watch is also a question, since the speech has shifted to a 9 p.m. Eastern starting time. Viewership for Obama’s addresses has steadily declined since 2010, dropping from a peak of 48 million in 2010 to 37.75 million last year.

Keenan’s work is also at risk of being offset by the Republican response, to be delivered by rising Republican star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has his own set of opportunities and concerns. Far-right stalwart Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will also deliver a response, geared toward his tea party base.

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