How Obama Prepares for the Grueling State of the Union

The president puts in back-to-back 2 a.m. nights rewriting his speech to make it “sing” and hopefully sway Congress. A former speechwriter shares what it’s like inside the White House.

There are plenty of reasons to think that the State of the Union address is a huge waste of everyone’s time.

For one thing, it’s really long. Imagine if a friend asked you to sit quietly for nearly an hour while he spoke with great detail and flourish about his many plans for the year ahead. Probably not, right? This is a speech that doesn’t seem like the best fit for a public whose attention span are 140 characters and pictures that disappear in ten seconds.

When you have to cover every issue from pre-K to natural gas to Iran in a single speech, it’s also difficult to do justice to any one topic. President Obama always wanted the speech to “sing,” as he put it, but he also spent hours ensuring the argument for each issue was carefully, logically constructed. Yet, even when presidents do make a strong case for a particular piece of legislation, there’s little evidence that rhetorical persuasion leads to congressional action. After all, it’s not as if House Republicans have been waiting for just the right words from Barack Obama in order to finally move on immigration reform that both parties in the Senate have already voted for.

There is some evidence that a State of the Union can help move public opinion. The president always asked us to write the speech with the American people as the most important audience in mind, and we’d find that most of the individual policy proposals tested highly favorably with focus groups of independent voters. Presidents have also been known to receive a small bump in their approval ratings following the address. But those bumps are often ephemeral, and tend to disappear as soon as our attention is turned to the next political gaffe or media freak-out.

I have worked on five State of the Union addresses, and they never get easier. The President starts thinking about this speech in late November, and each year, he would begin with a few bold pronouncements: “This will not be a laundry list!” and “This one will be shorter than all the rest!” By the weekend before, we’d be cutting furiously, fending off additions from the rest of the administration (and the President!) in a desperate attempt to keep this monster under an hour. Obama himself would clock consecutive 2 a.m. nights editing and revising. And if anyone’s looked at the White House Instagram feed lately, you’ll notice that Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan hasn’t had time to shave a single hair from his face since late in 2013, and now bears a striking resemblance to Homeland’s Saul Berenson, a development that has left his girlfriend deeply concerned.

So why the hell do we keep putting ourselves through this grueling ritual year after year? Shouldn’t we just go back to the days before Woodrow Wilson, where the State of the Union was conveyed in a simple letter to Congress?

No, we shouldn’t. And here’s why:

Along with a few championship games and award shows, the State of the Union is one of the few annual events that tens of millions of Americans still watch together, as a country. For a brief moment, we get to witness our system of government as the proud, democratic institution it was meant to be, not the sad, partisan spectacle it has too often become. Elected officials of both parties gather in one chamber, and (minus Joe Wilson) treat each other with civility, respect, and even warmth. Republicans will line up early to pose for pictures with President Obama, just as Democrats would reach over their colleagues to shake hands with President Bush. Sure, there are many times during the speech where one party applauds and the other does not. But there are many more times when both parties stand to cheer their president’s words: about our troops or our veterans; our children or our workers; our shared love of this country and its special, indispensible place in the world.

There are always a few jabs, but for the most part, this is a unifying, feel-good speech for a nation that desperately needs good feelings, and nowhere is that more true than in the stories we hear about ordinary Americans whose lives move us in extraordinary ways. One of Ronald Reagan’s greatest gifts to us was the inclusion of Lenny Skutnik in his 1982 State of the Union, the hero who rescued plane crash survivors from the sub-zero Potomac. Since then, every president has had the privilege of publicly recognizing such inspiration throughout his address.

This was my favorite part of working on the State of the Union. I would smile from my office as Laura Dean, our assistant speechwriter and expert researcher, called the bewildered people who made it into the speech. “Yes, that’s right, the President of the United States. No, this isn’t a prank.”

This is President Obama’s favorite part, too—particularly the story that’s often told to conclude the speech. My old boss is a sucker for good endings, and he would send us far and wide to find just the right anecdote. In 2011, a worker from a Pennsylvania firm whose drilling technology helped save the Chilean miners said, “We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things.” The President loved the quote, and turned it into an entire ending about American greatness and aspiration. In 2012, I remember the tears in his eyes as he told us that his proudest possession was the American flag that the SEAL team took with them on the Osama bin Laden mission, and later gave to the president as a gift. He turned that story into an ending about the unity and teamwork that defines America at its best.

Undoubtedly, the President and Cody are hard at work on another such ending for this year’s speech, and I can’t wait to hear it live. There will always be people who mock these stories as overly sappy and trite, but I think that our politics and the media give us enough reasons to be cynical every other day of the year. For one hour tonight, we get the chance to be inspired together. To me, that makes all the fuss worthwhile.