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FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2012, file photo, President Barack Obama gestures while delivering his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington. When Obama stands before Congress and the nation Tuesday night Jan. 28, 2014, there will be little hint of the cram-it-in, squeeze-it-out, please-put-it-back dynamic that went into the making of his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
State of Union: A speech its writers love to hate
Report to Congress » Obama keeps the text preparation under close personal supervision.
First Published Jan 24 2014 11:28 pm • Last Updated Mar 24 2014 11:35 pm

Washington • When President Barack Obama stands before Congress and the nation Tuesday night, there will be little hint of the cram-it-in, squeeze-it-out, please-put-it-back dynamic that went into the making of his State of the Union address.

In the days and weeks before every State of the Union, Cabinet members, policy advocates and others suddenly find reasons to visit the speechwriting team’s modest outpost in the White House basement, hoping for that all-important mention in the biggest presidential speech of the year.

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"Nobody wants to get left out," said Bruce Reed, a veteran of both the Obama and Clinton White Houses who recently left government.

It’s one reason the State of the Union is the address that presidential speechwriters love to hate.

One of George W. Bush’s speechwriters once called this final stretch the "seven-day death march."

"It’s not a nice, neat process, I can tell you that," said Jon Favreau, who led Obama’s speechwriting team for more than four years before leaving government a year ago.

This year, with just days left before the big speech, Obama’s chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, already has gotten plenty of helpful (and not-so-helpful) advice.

He’s sat through face-to-face meetings with nearly every Cabinet member and given all of them his email address.

"For that, he is saintly," Favreau said.

Piety’s nice. But the ability to say no is essential.


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For every sentence that’s in the speech, there are a dozen pages that won’t make the cut, said Bill McGurn, Bush’s chief speechwriter for three years.

"This is the opportunity for every apparatchik in government to have their pet cause or the issue they’re working on promoted by the president on national TV," he said. "They get disappointed if they only get a sentence, but it’s better than not getting a sentence."

Bush himself was wary of the dreaded "cram-in" — that sentence that just seemed to stick out because someone insisted on wedging in a mention of this or that.

"I used to joke that I was installing a round keyboard in my office so everyone could type at once," said Michael Waldman, President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1995 to 1999.

For Obama’s State of the Union, Favreau had a "pay-as-you-go" policy: For every word someone wanted to add to a draft, they had to find something else to cut.

He said Obama gives the speechwriting team plenty of leeway to push back against clutter by saying, "We’re not going to do this just because someone random said that they need to get it in."

But if someone won’t back down, the dispute may go up the chain of command to Obama.

With the final 72 hours of back-and-forth before the speech typically the most frantic time, Keenan’s White House colleagues are helping him gird for the final stretch.

One made him energy cookies and another gave him an industrial-sized Keurig machine that is said to sound like a jackhammer when coffee’s brewing.

Obama, like presidents past, starts each year vowing to keep the speech from turning into a laundry list. He’s big on finding an organizing theme, such as "Built to Last" in 2012 or "Winning the Future" in 2011. (Sarah Palin called the latter a "WTF" moment.)

But every president, including Obama, inevitably succumbs to the pressure to cover a multitude of bases, lest he be criticized for slighting something important.

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