In Review: President Obama’s Top Speeches as Chosen by His Speechwriters
The words a president chooses can shape how we see ourselves, how we understand our past, and how we face the future.
For eight years, President Barack Obama has led us during significant moments in American history. Whether it was the economic crisis, the Supreme Court decision to support marriage equality, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or the unimaginable horror at Newtown, time and again, the President found the right words to meet the moment.
Behind those words is a group of speechwriters who have worked closely with the President to craft important messages to the American people. It’s meant countless drafts and rewrites, late nights, and last-minute edits from the motorcade. As his time in office comes to a close, the President’s speechwriters — past and present — took a look back at eight years of remarks to share some of the words, speeches, and memories that stand out to them.
Take a look at a few of the President’s top speeches as chosen by his speechwriters.
September 9, 2009: Joint Session of Congress on Health Care
Jon Favreau, Former Director of Speechwriting, served 2005 to 2013
“What we face…is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
This wasn’t my line, and it wasn’t Barack Obama’s line. It was Ted Kennedy’s.
The idea for a joint session on health care was hatched about a week before the speech was delivered. It made sense — the President badly needed to rally Congress and the public behind his plan after a month of Tea Party protests and misinformation about what he was proposing.
But I wasn’t too thrilled. Our speechwriting team was supposed to fly to Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend for Ben Rhodes’s wedding, and I figured I’d have to stay behind to work on the speech. The President, being the President, told me I would do no such thing. Finish a draft before Saturday, he said, and he’d do some writing of his own over the weekend.
I was sitting in David Axelrod’s office a few days later, struggling to come up with an ending, when he was handed an envelope from Vicki Kennedy.
Inside was a letter from Ted to Obama, written shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal, that he asked to be delivered to the White House upon his death.
That phrase — “the character of our country” — jumped out at me. I drafted an ending based on the letter that was in the ballpark but not quite there. Then I left for the wedding.
On Labor Day, I woke up in LA to a phone call from Reggie Love at 6am.
“Hey, the boss wants to see you. Could you come upstairs?”
“Reggie, I’m in Los Angeles.”
“So when can you stop by? He has a lot of edits and really wants to see you soon.”
I changed my flight, ran through the airport, and showed up at the White House that night sweaty and out of breath, wearing jeans and a t-shirt but no badge. The officers looked at me strangely and asked who I was there to see. “The President,” I said, and I think they actually laughed.
I stepped into the Oval and received a completely fair assessment from Obama: “You’ve looked better. Have you showered today?” He smiled and told me he’d made a few changes to the end. Black pen covered the entire page, captured for posterity in one of my favorite Pete Souza photographs.
The President had also zeroed in on Kennedy’s “character of our country” phrase, and wrote a beautiful ending about how that character has always included a large-heartedness that was more than a partisan feeling: “our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”
As I made his edits that night, I had no idea if health care reform would ever pass. But Kennedy’s letter, and Obama’s ending, have often reminded me that the struggle to build a country true to its founding character is hard, unending, and always worthwhile.
April 18, 2013: Interfaith Service for the Victims of the Boston Bombing
Terence Szuplat, Senior Director of Speechwriting for the National Security Council, serving since 2009
“On Monday morning, the sun rose over Boston.”
As it did for people across the country, the bombing of the Boston Marathon hit close to home for me. I was born in Boston and spent the first years of my childhood there. Growing up in Massachusetts, I often spent holidays there surrounded by family with deep roots in the city’s Irish Catholic community. After the bombing, those of us in the speechwriting office knew that the President’s remarks at the memorial service would be a moment to honor the lives of the innocent people who had been killed and to salute the service of all the first responders. On a personal level, it was also a chance to celebrate a city that has always meant so much to me.
“On Monday morning, the sun rose over Boston” was one of the first lines of the speech. From there, the President painted a picture of a beautiful morning that was shattered by the bombing. We had sent the President a first draft the night before the service. As usual, he made it better. For example, he took one of the pieces of Scripture — “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity” — and wove it throughout the part of the speech about how we have to face terrorism with strength and resilience. He also made it better at the pulpit. As he starts the speech, you can see him flipping the pages from back to front as he borrows another piece of Scripture at the end of the speech — “run with endurance” — and uses it to bookend the front of the speech as well.
As speechwriters, we often write with a specific person or group of people in mind — the people we want the speech to connect with, emotionally. In this case, I kept thinking of one of my uncles, born and bred in Boston who, to me, embodied the Boston Strong spirit of pride and defiance we saw that week. “If they sought to intimidate us,” the President said of the bombers, “they picked the wrong city.” After the memorial service, one of the first calls I received was from my uncle. He was at a local pub where he had watched the speech with friends, as people did across the city. “The President,” he said in his thick Boston accent, “did good.”
March 7, 2015: 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches
Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting, serving since 2009
“It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.”
On March 7, 1965, a group of mostly black Americans, led by John Lewis, set out to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to demand their right to vote in the face of illegal and discriminatory disenfranchisement. They barely made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge before their nonviolent protest was met with violent resistance. The images shocked the conscience not only of the nation, but the world.
If you’d have told them that just fifty years later, a black President would return to commemorate what they did there, let alone to consecrate it as the highest form of patriotism…well, here’s how John Lewis, now a Congressman, puts it: “I’d have said you were out of your mind.”
Two days before President Obama would visit, a late snowstorm shut down official Washington for the day. So it meant we got to spend more time passing drafts back and forth than we otherwise would. I handed him a first draft that morning, based on a conversation we’d had a few days prior. And within a couple hours, in his tight penmanship, he’d returned his first round of edits, which included a new line:
It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.
That’s what happened on a bridge in Selma. The men and women who marched that day weren’t wealthy, or powerful, or protected, but they were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to make real our most important ideal of all — that all of us are created equal. And in the process, they changed our country’s course. That’s true patriotism — the willingness to take up the joyful, frustrating, and sometimes costly struggle to make this country better, not just for ourselves, but for others, too, especially when it’s hard.
Our destiny doesn’t belong to any one person or group. It belongs to all of us. “The single most powerful word in our democracy,” the President said that day, “is the word ‘We.’ We the People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
In an age of ever-shrinking news cycles and attention spans, progress always seems frustratingly slow. But it’s worth realizing that America is closer to reaching our founding ideals than we were in 1776, and 1965, and on January 20th, 2009, not because our progress was preordained, but because so many citizens took up that glorious task. That progress didn’t begin with Barack Obama. It won’t end with him, either. Because America is only getting bigger, younger, more boisterous, more diverse, more energetic — and there are plenty more bridges that need to be crossed.
December 15, 2015: Naturalization Ceremony at the National Archives
Sarada Peri, Senior Presidential Speechwriter, serving since 2014
“The truth is, being an American is hard. Being part of a democratic government is hard. Being a citizen is hard. It is a challenge. It’s supposed to be. There’s no respite from our ideals.”
As the political season heated up in the fall of 2015, the rhetoric against minorities and immigrants got ugly. Many people, including here at the White House, were concerned and even fearful. So when President Obama was asked to speak at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives, we speechwriters saw an opportunity. Standing in front of newly sworn-in citizens, surrounded by our nation’s founding documents, he could remind Americans what immigration has always meant to our country, how it is born out of our values, and why it remains vital to who we are today. He could do what he does so well — remind us who we are, and who we can be, at our best.
Sometimes when you don’t know where to start — and I often don’t — a piece of Scripture can help anchor a speech: “For we are strangers before you, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.” Beginning with the Pilgrims, he told the story of America through the generations of people from every part of the world who have come to our shores. He admitted there were times when we betrayed our values by mistreating newcomers — an impulse we must never again indulge. The line above is, to me, at the heart of the speech, an articulation of President Obama’s vision of America. In his view, patriotism isn’t served by whitewashing history — it’s the idea that people who love their country can change it.
He wanted the new citizens in the room to feel welcome in their new home. He wanted the young girl wearing a hijab, the undocumented student, the Syrian refugee who fled the horrors of war, to know that this is their country, too. He wanted to tell the story of the big-hearted, generous, brave, United States of America he believes in, the one so many of us know, the one that made my own immigrant family’s story possible.
After the speech, a Muslim American colleague emailed me one line: “It meant the world.”
February 4, 2016: Honoring the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors
Zev Karlin-Neumann, National Security Council Speechwriter, serving since 2015
“He was clowning.”
As far as presidential speeches go, remarks honoring a championship sports team are hardly the ones that echo through history. But to a lifelong fan of the Golden State Warriors like me, it might as well have been an inaugural address. And as a speechwriter on the National Security Council staff, this was a chance to work on something a little different than the usual foreign policy remarks. The speech was only supposed to run 8–10 minutes, but I researched everything from the mechanics of Steph Curry’s jump shot to Andre Iguodala’s summer internship at Merrill Lynch.
Knowing that President Obama, a die-hard Chicago Bulls fan, can’t resist trash-talking other teams my speechwriting colleague Tyler Lechtenberg and I drafted the line praising “guys from the greatest team in NBA history” — only to redirect the compliment to Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ coach and a former Bulls player. As a light-hearted homage to how far the team had come, the draft noted that Warriors star Klay Thompson had forgotten that the team that would draft him even existed, creating a fun moment when Klay blushed and buried his head in his hands.
Finally, after attending the Warriors’ 134–121 win over the Washington Wizards the night before — where Steph made 11 three-pointers — I added a joke about the malaria charity Steph supports to which he donates three malaria nets for every three pointer he makes. In his edits, the President diplomatically changed the line that Iguodala “locked down LeBron” and instead said that Iguodala “played great ‘D.’’ At the podium, the President drew on his love of the game to tease the team and commend them for being great role models. Before long, the 44th President of the United States was hopping around to imitate Steph’s victory dance and President Obama’s ad libbed phrase, “He was ‘clowning’” entered the presidential record.
March 22, 2016: Address to the People of Cuba
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, serving since 2009
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
These are simple words, but they represent the approach that President Obama has taken in our Cuba policy and our broader foreign policy. With respect to Cuba, these sentences sum up the approach we have taken: turning the page on a policy that had failed, and starting a new chapter in which we were willing to engage Cuba to help the Cuban people achieve a better life. To do that, we had to leave behind decades of animosity rooted in the Cold War — so much history is alluded to in the first sentence that doesn’t even need to be named to be understood: the Cuban Revolution, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Missile Crisis, and endless efforts by both U.S. Administrations and the Cuban government to undermine one another.
In that respect, these words indicate both the symbolic nature of our Cuba policy — cutting loose an anchor on America’s standing in our own hemisphere, and in many parts of the world; while also describing in simple terms the new approach of promoting more contacts, travel, and commerce between our peoples. The fact that the President delivered these words on Cuban soil infused them with much more meaning than if he had said them at home.
More broadly, though, these two sentences represent several different strands of President Obama’s worldview and approach to foreign policy. He refuses to be defined by the past, or imprisoned by it. He doesn’t continue doing things that don’t work simply because that’s the approach we’ve always taken. He believes that long-standing conflicts can end. He is willing to use his travel and his speeches to indicate new beginnings, including with former adversaries like Cuba, Myanmar, Vietnam, or Laos.
He speaks not just to governments, but directly to the people of other countries — and this particular speech was broadcast live, unedited, on Cuban television. He is willing to fight against forces of division and animosity.
All of that adds up to a common vision: a belief that people around the world often have more in common than the policies pursued by their governments, and that there is always the possibility of change, reconciliation, and progress if we are willing to look forward, and not backwards.
April 12, 2016: Designation of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Museum
Susannah Jacob, Assistant Speechwriter, serving since 2014
“In these rooms, they pursued ideals which shouldn’t be relegated to the archives of history, shouldn’t be behind glass cases, because the story of their fighting is our story.”
I love history and the history of old houses especially. The Belmont-Paul House on Capitol Hill is one of the oldest houses in Washington D.C., and when President Obama decided to designate it as a National Monument, I jumped at the opportunity to help write his remarks for the occasion.
Engulfed in flames during the War of 1812, the Belmont-Paul House later became home to the National Woman’s Party. From its rooms, dozens of women, led by Alice Paul, invented modern protesting. Situated steps away from the halls of power in the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court, they lobbied, wrote, and picketed seven days a week. When they were arrested, they toiled in prison workhouses, embroidering their names on handkerchiefs as a means of smuggling them to the press. When they began a hunger strike, they were force-fed raw eggs. All in the name of basic equality.
In preparation to draft the speech for the President to review, I visited the house. Standing in its long, oaken rooms with the bright Capitol Hill sunlight streaming in, I looked around and imagined the space teeming with women sewing picket signs late into the night. In the library, I sat at a table and rifled through the letters and documents they wrote with their own determined hands. The physicality of the house helped bring long-gone history into the here and now, at least in my mind.
That moment captured a point the President often makes explicitly, and the central historical lesson I have learned again and again in my time in the White House. “Their story is our story.” History is not sealed off from the present, nor will it guarantee what is to come. But when we let the stories of the past seep into our imaginations, and realize that historical actors like Alice Paul and the members of the National Woman’s Party were ordinary people who could never know what would result from their deeds, we remove history from behind a glass case and turn it into our own reservoir of courage and strength.
May 30, 2016: Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery
Steve Krupin, Senior Presidential Speechwriter, serving since 2016
“Those from whom we asked everything ask of us today only one thing in return: that we remember them.”
The President speaks every Memorial Day, usually at Arlington National Cemetery. To a speechwriter, drafting the eighth annual edition of any remarks is a challenge: How do you make it different? President Obama knew the answer was in honoring lives that were not just lost, but lived. He wanted to introduce the country to the three Americans who had given their lives in combat against ISIL since last Memorial Day — to say their names and tell their stories. Each servicemember’s character spoke for itself; the President could speak about their personalities. Part of my research required calling the families of the fallen to ask their permission and learn more about what their loved ones were like. It’s draining and occasionally feels invasive; one Navy SEAL had been killed just a couple of weeks earlier.
Another call was to North Carolina and Ashley Wheeler, the wife of a Special Operator, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler. He gave his life during a rescue mission in Iraq that set 70 hostages free. At the end of our conversation, Ashley asked if it would be possible, before the end of his term, to meet the President. Honestly, I had no idea — but replied, “What are you doing on Monday?” When I hung up, I called our colleagues in the Social Office. They immediately invited Ashley and her 10-month-old son, David, to join the President for his breakfast at the White House with veterans and Gold Star families. When our advance team noticed that Master Sgt. Wheeler’s story anchored the speech, they sat Ashley and David in the President’s box a few feet from the podium.
As the President has said many times, he has no more solemn obligation than sending our men and women in uniform into harm’s way, and he emphasizes just as frequently our shared responsibility to appreciate the service and sacrifice of their families. As he told the country about Master Sgt. Wheeler, the President gestured to his right, acknowledging Wheeler’s wife and son. For 30 long seconds, the entire amphitheater stood and honored a woman who has endured unthinkable loss and a son who will grow up with only others’ memories of his father. I don’t remember many lines from the speech, but I’ll never forget the feeling of the standing ovation Ashley and David received in the place where Josh was laid to rest.
September 24, 2016: Dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Tyler Lechtenberg, Senior Presidential Speechwriter, serving since 2010
“On a stone where day after day, for years, men and women were torn from their spouse or their child, shackled and bound, and bought and sold, and bid like cattle; on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet — for a long time, the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as “history” with a plaque were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.”
When we spoke with the President a couple weeks before this speech, he wanted his remarks to be a reflection on history — about how the stories we tell ourselves help us understand who we are. And, as he often does, he talked us through an outline — thanking everyone who made the museum a reality, talking about why history is important, using the artifacts of the museum to show that the African-American story is central to our national story, and ending with a personal note about bringing his grandkids back someday. And he wanted to speak for less than 10 minutes.
Still, with a museum that spanned centuries and included thousands of artifacts –the remnants of a slave ship, Emmett Till’s coffin, a Public Enemy stage banner — I struggled to find a way into the heart of the speech. Then I spoke with Joe Paulsen, the President’s travel aide, who mentioned that on the First Family’s tour, the President had spent some time looking at a slave auction block on the building’s lowest floor. So on my next trip to the museum — I made three research trips there — I saw that on top of the stone was a historical marker reading: “General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from this slave block…during the year 1830.” That was it — an artifact that could not only bear the speech’s emotional weight, but also speak to the President’s larger historical themes.
When I got back the President’s edits — a maze of insertions and deletions that is at once sobering and exhilarating — what stood out to me were his changes to the line above. It’s a feeling all of us speechwriters have had — watching him breathe life into some skeleton we’d given him.
In this line, you see it in phrases like “a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet” and “the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.”
That’s what he does — thousands and thousands of times over these eight years. No matter how much we pour ourselves into a draft, whether it’s a video for a few dozen people or an address to the nation, there’s always a higher level. There’s always a deeper message or a more poetic way to express it. And he always seems to capture it.
Sometimes it just ends up taking 31 minutes to say it.
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