Former chief White House speechwriter Jon Favreau talks about working with President Obama. Rene Alston, USA TODAY
As President Obama’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau drafted his previous State of the Union addresses. Now a partner at the communication firm Fenway Strategies, Favreau talks with USA TODAY’s Capital Download about why the speech is important and the lessons he’s learned. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Is this State of the Union especially important, before 2016 politics takes over?
A: I think they’re all important in their own way, and I also think they’re all sort of over-hyped in their own way.
Q: Best case, what could this speech do for President Obama?
A: I think it gives the American people a sense that he has a vision, he has a plan for moving the country before, and not only does he have ideas, but he has a plan to get those ideas through –- not just Congress but, as he’s been saying and as the White House has been saying for the last couple weeks, he can use the pen and he can use the phone. So there’s going to be executive actions he can take, and there’s going to be ways he can work with other people in the country. And I think giving people a sense that there is action, that there is a plan, is going to be important.
Q: “The pen and the phone” — doesn’t that sound like a smaller presidency than before?
A: I don’t think it’s a smaller presidency. He’s had a recalcitrant Congress for a couple years now, and he’s tried very hard to pass things through this Congress that even with Republican support, some Republican support, couldn’t get enough to get through. At that point, you have to find other ways to get things done. And there’s plenty of authority and power invested in him as an executive that some of the steps he’ll be outlining tomorrow night and in the months ahead can make a real difference for people.
Q: Are there risks in this speech?
A: I don’t think so, unless something horrible happened that we can’t imagine, prompter breaks down or something.
Q: What is Obama’s attitude toward the State of the Union? Special speech or horrible chore?
A: He does see it as a special speech. He takes it very seriously. He probably starts thinking about it around Thanksgiving, along with the rest of us, and I think the writing begins in earnest usually sometime after Christmas, and then it’s pretty much a sprint right to the finish. He spends consecutive 2 a.m. nights editing and revising as we’re getting closer to the big day.
Q: How did you meet Obama?
A: I first met Barack Obama when I was 22 years old and I was working for John Kerry as a deputy speechwriter on his campaign. And during the 2004 Democratic convention, my job was to be backstage at the convention and try to help make sure that all the speakers were on the message of the Kerry campaign.
So one day I’m back there and I get a call from the road, and they say, ‘We just saw a draft of Barack Obama’s keynote address, and it happens to have a line in the speech that John Kerry wants to deliver in his nomination speech. So will you go take that line out from Barack Obama’s speech?’
So I walk backstage, and I see Robert Gibbs, who I used to work for in the Kerry campaign, and now he’s working for Obama. And I tell him what the situation is and I was like, ‘Hey, Gibbs, do you mind going to say something to Obama?’ And he said, ‘I’m not saying anything, you go tell him yourself. ‘ So as Obama is practicing his speech for the first time, that’s when I have to go and deliver this news. And he says, ‘Are you telling me I have to take my favorite line out of the speech?’
Q: What was the line?
A: It was toward the end of the very famous red state-blue state riff, and it was ‘We are not red states, blue states, we are the United States of America,’ and there was some kind of change there that we made.
Q: You’ve been working for Obama since he was a senator. How has he changed?
A: What’s incredible to me about Barack Obama is about how little he has actually changed. What he has taught most of us who’ve worked for him is he has taught us patience and perseverance. He is someone with an eye toward the long game. He does not let polls and short-term craziness get him riled up.
Q: What’s been the best moment from his State of the Union Addresses?
A: My favorite moments in the State of the Union are always the end, the story that we work on for the end. And the year where he gave the speech after the bin Laden operation had succeeded, and we were looking for a story for the end, he was talking to Ben Rhodes and I. And he said, ‘My proudest possession that I have is the flag that SEAL Team 6 took into the raid, and they gave it to me after the raid.’ And he’s telling us the story, and he’s almost tearing up as he says it. He used that story of the SEAL team and the flag to kind of end the speech and to make it a larger metaphor of what America can do when people work together and cooperate as a team, and when we’re unified as one country.
Q: And the worst moment?
A: There was a joke about spilt milk that I won’t even go into that he attempted, that I’ll take the blame for, that just did not go over that well. You always have to be careful about jokes in the State of the Union.