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What To Expect From Obama's Final State Of The Union


Let's be frank. A big part of tonight's State of the Union ritual is about style. The president of the United States stands before Congress. Lawmakers applaud or do not.


Inspirational figures play their part by sitting in the gallery. Everyone's playing to the TV cameras. But there is also a degree of substance, the presidential speech itself.

INSKEEP: This is Obama's last State of the Union address. And we got a sense of its preparation by talking with a past Obama speechwriter. His name is Jon Favreau.

JON FAVREAU: Usually we began talking about the State of the Union around Thanksgiving. The writing would really begin in earnest around Christmas. Once the new year came and went, there would be a frenzied couple weeks of writing and editing and rewriting, right up until the final speech and then practicing the speech on the last day.

INSKEEP: Jon Favreau, who's now in Los Angeles, started working with the president during his first Senate campaign.

FAVREAU: I think from the very beginning, I learned that speeches are not a collection of applause lines and sound bites. Speeches are a story that you tell. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have structure. And more than anything else, the president's mind as a lawyer and a professor come out when he's working on a speech because everything in the speech is very logical. And there's a story to every speech.

INSKEEP: Of course, there is now a grand story of an entire administration that is beginning to near its close. What does that mean for a speech like this?

FAVREAU: You know, I think it's tempting at first to use a speech like this to only look backwards and sort of talk about all the accomplishments and the administration, everything that we've achieved. And I think there'll be a little bit of that. But for the president, it's more important right now to look forward with this speech. I think in some ways, this is the morning in America speech in response to the malaise speech that the Republican candidates have been giving the entire primary season.

INSKEEP: That's an interesting challenge, to try to convey that sense of morning in America - using a phrase from Ronald Reagan's era, by the way - because hasn't this president been trying to say for several years it's morning in America. Things are moving in the right direction. Things are better. And according to surveys, there's just an awful lot of people out there - even people who may support him - who don't see it that way.

FAVREAU: Well, and every year he says it, it becomes more true (laughter). No, but there is. Look, and I think if you say it without acknowledging the very real anxiety that working people face - you know, wages still aren't growing fast enough. There's still too many people without jobs. But the fact is, if you look at the markers by almost every economic statistic, we're in a vastly better place than we were.

INSKEEP: And you think this is a moment when he can sell that case.

FAVREAU: I do. I think - I think it's a moment where he has to try, certainly, because I think, you know, if all people hear when they turn on the TV or the radio or read the news is dreary and dismal accounts of what America is going through, you know, it ultimately affects the national mood. And I think the president has the opportunity here to say, no; we have a lot going for us as a country.

INSKEEP: It's said of President George W. Bush that his main role in crafting his communications was to hone them, to make them sharper and shorter and simpler. Why say it in seven words if you can say it in five? What's President Obama's role in that process?

FAVREAU: (Laughter). President Obama, he usually adds words when he writes himself because, you know, I think sometimes he has a frustration with the sound bite culture that we have right now, right? And so sometimes, he wants to take the time to make the exact point, even if it takes a couple extra words or a couple extra sentences. And then, once he's comfortable that he's achieved that, he'll then come to the speechwriters and say, OK, you guys cut it down.

INSKEEP: Were there occasions when you would simplify his complexity, take it back to him, and he'd make it complex again?

FAVREAU: He would, many times (laughter). He would say, you know what, that's just a shortcut. We're just being lazy here. And then towards the end, his role is to really add poetry to the speech. You know, he's better than all of us at finding language that you don't hear in politics every day. And so a lot of sort of the uplifting, lofty rhetoric that he's known for in these speeches, you know, he comes up with himself.

INSKEEP: How do you think this president has changed over seven years in office?

FAVREAU: I think he's probably even more patient than when he first - when he first got here, right? I think he sort of knew that the change he spoke about in the campaign would take quite a while. But I think now that he has seen politics and government up close for seven years, he knows that for a lot of these big, transformational changes, it takes a lot of time.

INSKEEP: It's interesting to hear you say that you feel that he's become more patient over time because there are also moments in recent months when he has seemed a little fed up with his critics. I'm thinking notably of when his ISIS strategy was being criticized. And he said, well, if people want to pop off about that, they ought to come up with a better idea. That was taken as a sign of annoyance.

FAVREAU: Well, yeah, there's definitely annoyance (laughter). That's part of the job too. You can't do these jobs and deal with around-the-clock criticism without ever getting a little annoyed.

INSKEEP: Knowing him as you do, what have you thought when you've seen him be publicly emotional in recent weeks and months, perhaps most notably when he shed tears when talking about gun control?

FAVREAU: You know, it didn't totally surprise me. You know, I remember when the tragedy at Newtown elementary took place. And we had handed him a first draft of the speech he would give at the press conference that day, walked into the Oval and tried to pick up the edits. And he barely even looked up from his desk because there were tears in his eyes. I mean, he was so emotional that day, and you know, the first time he came home from Dover Air Force Base and saw a flag-draped coffin come off that plane. I think the weight of what it means to be the president of the United States, the commander in chief, when tragedies like this happen really affects him not only as a president but as a parent.

INSKEEP: Well, Jon Favreau, thank you very much.

FAVREAU: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: On this morning of the State of Union speech, that's Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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