As US President Joe Biden prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, consider the job of the White House speechwriters, the hardest-working staff in Washington this time of year.
The annual keynote address, delivered as part of a primetime spectacular, frequently draws the greatest audience a US president will receive all year – and everyone in town wants to be a part of it.
A sentence here may galvanize support for a lawmaker’s favourite project; a paragraph there could keep a government program from being axed.
Cody Keenan is all too aware of this. He was the primary writer for four State of the Union speeches during Barack Obama’s second term as director of speechwriting.
“It’s the most important speech you’ll write all year, but it’s also the most difficult, irritating, and time consuming,” he adds.
“When it’s all done, you still feel a feeling of pride and relief,” he says.
Last March, President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address, just five days after Russia invaded Ukraine. His second appearance will be before a new Congress on Tuesday, with Republicans controlling one chamber.
That means the speech will most certainly have a significantly different tone than last year’s, but Mr Keenan believes it should nevertheless carry up on the basic message left behind by Mr Biden in his 2022 State of the Union address.
He describes the yearly speech as a “built-in reset” to the presidential calendar since it is delivered towards the beginning of the year and many individuals who don’t follow politics on a daily basis tune in to listen.
Mr Keenan would begin working on the address at least a month or two ahead of time, keeping himself inside his windowless workroom under the Oval Office for hours on end as the day approached.
His office featured a coffee machine, which had been given to him by National Security Council officials eager to get something added to the speech one year.
When he came out, some West Wing workers camped around the toilet nearest to his office and begged him for more, he recalls.
Ignoring these pleas as well as his growing email inbox, Mr Keenan and his assistant Susannah Jacobs devised a system: a big smiley face emoji on his door if the speech was going well and he was open to additions, but a skull and crossbones up if the draft was in rough shape and no more cooks were needed.
While Mr. Keenan was the primary author, he was constantly assisted by the remaining half-dozen or so speechwriters on the team, the chief of staff, and, of course, the president himself.
“Whether it was the State of the Union or any other large address, Barack Obama was always the genuine chief wordsmith,” says Terry Szuplat, who worked on roughly 500 Obama speeches between 2009 and 2017.
“One of the big misconceptions of speechwriting is that speechwriters somehow put words into the president’s lips, which is completely false.
“Every day, speechwriters listen to and learn from the president, and we do our best to offer a draft that embodies their voice, vision, and beliefs.”
Mr. Szuplat contends that the State of the Union address is a task that few of these unsung wordsmiths actually appreciate, a speech that must be delivered and is naturally high-profile but is rarely memorable.
“There are so many issues to handle that every speechwriter does their best to put it together in a logical narrative with a unifying theme that binds everything together,” the rhetorical handyman explains.
Mr. Obama would meet with his primary writers ahead of the speech to determine an overall topic for the address. Following that, many officials from throughout the government would be asked to weigh in, anchoring the speech in a list of political realities and economic restrictions. The core writing team would next go over the list, prioritizing certain items and eliminating others.
“What makes a great State of the Union address is taking a list of projects, programs, and policies and attempting to deliver a coherent, engaging tale and vision to the American people,” Mr Szuplat explains.
Officials from the previous White House administration have seldom discussed what it was like to write speeches for President Donald Trump. But, according to the New York Times, speech-writing methods for Mr Trump’s State of the Unions hewed very close to Obama-era traditions: prepared with the participation of multiple staffers, revised by top wordsmith Stephen Miller and presented as “100 percent President Trump’s own words”.
President Biden is famously difficult to compose speeches for, usually tinkering with numerous versions until the last minute and frequently deviating from the script.
Vinay Reddy, his primary speechwriter, was described as “fluent in Bidenese” by an administration official last year.
Mr. Reddy is due to meet with Mr. Biden this weekend at Camp David, the presidential residence in Maryland, to write and fine-tune a final draft. Other key White House officials, as well as historian Jon Meacham, will join them.
Republicans will have to find the correct balance on Tuesday night as a battle over the federal debt ceiling, a Justice Department probe into Mr Biden’s handling of secret material, and the anticipated beginning of his re-election campaign looms.
As Mr Keenan puts it: “Best wishes to the speechwriters. I’m pleased it’s not me doing it.”