Former President Barack Obama launched a blistering – many political pundits say historically unprecedented – attack on his successor at Wednesday night’s Democratic National Convention.
In a 15-minute address, Obama said President Donald Trump represented a threat to democracy and was simply not up to the job.
“For close to four years now he has shown no interest in putting in the work," said Obama. "No interest in finding common ground. No interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends. No interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”
Cody Keenan has been Obama’s speechwriter for more than a decade and helped him craft the speech. He says the process was straightforward.
“When you sit down to start a speech with him we will talk about what’s the story we want to tell and why is he the only person that can tell it,” said Keenan. “So at a convention like this, when you have dozens of speakers, we identify what makes the president unique. And it’s that he has sat in the Oval Office. He has sat in the Oval Office with both of the men running for president. And it’s that you come to get this weight – you feel the weight of the job when you take it. And you’re a custodian of this democracy in a way that few other people are. And he said: ‘Those are the things I want to talk about.’”
Keenan, a visiting professor at Northwestern University, also challenged the notion that the former president’s criticism of the incumbent was unprecedented.
“It’s not historically unprecedented to criticize the sitting president, it’s happened before,” said Keenan. “It’s also not the first time that President Obama has done it. He said when he left office he would speak out when American values are at stake. And we didn’t make it two weeks before he had to issue a statement on the Muslim ban.”
But he emphasized that the president takes no delight in criticizing Trump and that the former president’s remarks reflected his concern over the current situation.
“It’s not what he wants to be doing. If he had it his way, he would be enjoying his retirement post-presidency and running his foundation,” said Keenan. “In some ways he’s still doing his job in retirement. It was less of a criticism of Donald Trump than an actual, if anything, a blistering reminder of what is at stake here and what all of us have to do. And if the speech unsettled you then it should have. That’s the point. But it should also inspire you to go out and act.”
Former President Bill Clinton’s senior speechwriter and former ambassador to Belize Carolyn Curiel agreed.
“I thought it was beautifully written – hat’s off to Cody. And, of course, gorgeously delivered because that's what Barack Obama does,” said Curiel. “And very heartfelt and the setting could not have been more perfect. It was well-needed. Well received – I believe. And got people thinking and I hope moved to action.”
She said the lack of a convention crowd actually made the for better television and a more impactful message.
“I actually like it. I like it a lot. It’s more intimate,” said Curiel, who wrote many of Clinton’s radio addresses from the White House. “That intimate setting allows you to almost be in a conversation with the audience that feels practically one-on-one. The carnival is gone. There are no people in the corners taking selfies. There are no celebrities working the room. There are no VIP rooms. It’s the person, the message and the camera.”
Keenan said that for him, the lack of a convention crowd made for a better speech because it made Obama’s remarks seem all the more urgent.
“When speeches have failed this week or fallen short, it’s when people are writing applause lines into them or jokes – and those just don’t work without an audience,” said Keenan. “I think for the president’s speech it worked because it gave it more of a sense of urgency. His ‘04 speech wouldn’t have worked without an audience. But last night’s speech wouldn’t have worked with one.”