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Speechwriters weigh in on the State of the Union address

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Behind every applause line or rousing call for action during a State of the Union address, there is a speechwriter who puzzled over the exact right wording and the follow-up to the inevitable pushback. So in preparation for President Biden's message tonight to a divided Congress, we wanted to hear from two speechwriters who have an interesting vantage point on what Biden's words can, and perhaps cannot, accomplish. I'm joined now by Cody Keenan, former chief speechwriter for Barack Obama, and Mike Ricci, who wrote speeches for Republicans John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Welcome to you both.

CODY KEENAN: Hey, Juana. Thanks for having us.

MICHAEL RICCI: Thanks for having us.

SUMMERS: So, Cody, I want to start with you here because you helped President Obama craft his State of the Union addresses delivered to a divided Congress. What issues do you expect President Biden to focus on tonight as he is in a very similar situation?

KEENAN: Yeah, there's always sort of a Groundhog Day feel to a bunch of these. You know, it's a speech that happens once a year, but it should signal to the American people where we've been, where we are and where we're going to go. So I suspect that they're going to trumpet a lot of the good story they have to tell - you know, the fact that half a million people who didn't have a job last month now do, unemployment's at a 50-year low, gas prices, inflation are falling. But I think even more important is showing people where we're going to go from here. And with a divided Congress, that makes it more interesting.

SUMMERS: And, Mike, you've worked for Republican speakers and helped Paul Ryan write his response to President Obama's 2011 address. So I'd like to ask you, are there certain opportunities for Biden tonight to connect with both Republican lawmakers but also Republican voters?

RICCI: So much of this, Juana, it's - on Capitol Hill, it's the closest thing to a presidential debate. There's war rooms, spin rooms, rapid response, you know, in-game analysis, who's wearing what color, who's sitting next to who. So a lot of the response is kind of predetermined almost and kind of baked in the cake. And the White House knows that, so they know there's only so much they can do to actually bring in the Republicans in the room. So a lot of it is, to your question, about going over the heads of the Republicans in the chamber and trying to reach maybe common-sense conservative voters with rhetoric that appeals to people in the middle.

SUMMERS: Mike, I want to stick with you for just a second. You worked for Speakers Boehner and Ryan, two House speakers that I covered on Capitol Hill. And I'm curious if there's anything that sticks out from your time in working with them and preparing for these Republican responses that you think may be instructive?

RICCI: These responses have become so fragmented over the years. You know, tonight, for instance, there'll be the official Republican response by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but apparently President Trump will have his own response. The White House is thinking about all the big, different issues on the Hill. They're mostly thinking about, you know, what the members of Congress are obsessed with. And usually that's two to three things at a time - in this case, probably the debt limit, what just happened with China, maybe looking to see what the president will say about Ukraine and the border. So you plan for everything, but usually you have to boil it down to two or three things you're going to hit hard on in your response.

KEENAN: And Mike brings up a good point about how difficult this is for White House speechwriters because you have every Cabinet agency, every interest group, everybody's pushing on you to get their policy idea in the speech, and it's exhausting. And it's a speechwriter's job to prevent it from becoming a Christmas tree. You know, putting something in the speech just 'cause somebody will be mad that you don't is not good writing. So it's just this kind of never-ending battle.

RICCI: Yeah. And I think different stakeholders will look for different language, you know, on - you know, how much a president puts his shoulder to the wheel rhetorically matters, so committee chairs will - you know, did the president make a vague call to action? Did he specifically say pass this bill or hammer an issue home? You know, committee chairs, stakeholders, people watching obsess about that stuff. And these are all choices that the White House speechwriters have to make.

KEENAN: Yeah, they'll look to see how robust a certain adjective is.

RICCI: Yep.

KEENAN: But you've got to remember the people at home don't watch that closely.

RICCI: Right.

KEENAN: And if they want to know, they want to know what you're saying. They don't really care about how your adjective rates on a scale of 1 to 10.

SUMMERS: As I'm thinking back over the last decade of having a hand in covering the State of the Union address almost every year, I can't help but be reminded of a really powerful moment during President Obama's 2013 address. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary had happened about two months prior, and he used that opportunity to demand action on gun violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: What I've said tonight matters little if we don't come together to protect our most precious resource - our children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

SUMMERS: And now Biden's address comes a week after the funeral for Tyre Nichols, who was fatally beaten by police officers in the city of Memphis. And we do know that Nichols' parents are expected to be in attendance at the State of the Union tonight. Mike, how might that influence what we could hear from President Biden?

RICCI: Well, I think these speeches want to definitely still have the ability from time to time to produce big moments. And 10 years ago, you know, President Obama saying, you know, the families deserve a vote...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

RICCI: It was very powerful, a call to action. And I think the video of the assault was a rare moment when something broke through and resonated so strongly with the larger public. And there were talks in the Senate on bipartisan police reform that I think broke down a couple of times. But it's certainly an opportunity to produce a big moment that goes - you know, that morning shows will show that will resonate locally with a lot of people. And, you know, these speeches have changed a bit over the years and as the media becomes more fragmented, but there's still an ability to cut through and reach a larger audience with things like this.

SUMMERS: Cody, I want to ask you the same question because I know you were the lead speechwriter for the 2013 address that we've been talking about.

KEENAN: Yeah, you can create these big moments and, you know, President Obama and I would always joke on game day that the beginning and the ending of the speech were in great shape And we just kind (laughter) - we said the middle is fine. And that's the part where you have this laundry list of proposals. But I want to give the Biden speechwriters some cover here. There is no clever turn of phrase or story that's going to necessarily guarantee action or secure unity or bring people along. I mean, that's always kind of an ongoing thing. No speech is going to change everybody's minds, but those are the moments that people remember.

SUMMERS: Last question for each of you - if the Biden team were to reach out to you and ask you for a piece of advice, what would you tell them? And, Cody, I want to start with you.

KEENAN: Oh, man. I can tell you...

RICCI: (Laughter).

KEENAN: ...That when I was writing these, nothing annoyed me more than somebody on TV saying, here's what the president needs to say.

RICCI: (Laughter).

KEENAN: So I'll just couch it by saying, you know, one constant across White Houses, regardless of party, is a frustration that all the good you're doing doesn't break through and it's just never going to. You know, people have busy lives and also it doesn't work to just tell people, here's how great everything is. But I'd be interested to see, you know, getting back to my first answer, what's the story we're trying to tell here? Where - what have you been doing for the last two years? How does that fit into this kind of bigger agenda you have? And a president's job isn't just to tell us how things are. It's to show us how things are going to be.

SUMMERS: And what about you, Mike? What advice would you give them?

RICCI: Well, I think, you know, there's been a lot of coverage about how the president is going to use this to kind of kick off the 2024 election. And, you know, you want to - my advice, I guess, would be, just don't overshoot to the market, to be the happy warrior. You saw with the speech the president gave over the summer in Philadelphia, there was a strong reaction to some of his rhetoric maybe being too harsh and some of that is Washington playing tone police, which is one of its favorite pastimes. But I think even in dire times, people look for something a bit, you know, lighter, a bit loftier from presidents and leaders to the extent possible. So, you know, if you're going to lay out contrasts, absolutely do it. Hammer it home. But try to play the happy warrior. I think people, regardless of party, I think people do respond to that.

SUMMERS: That was Michael Ricci, former speechwriter for two Republican House speakers - he's now a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service - and Cody Keenan, former speechwriter for Obama and author of the book "Grace," about his time writing for the former president. Thanks to both of you for being here.

KEENAN: Thanks, Juana.

RICCI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "A CALF BORN IN WINTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.