Outside the Obamas’ marriage, perhaps no White House relationship has been the source of as much fascination as the president’s bond with his head of speechwriting. Some of it has to do with Favreau’s youth, of course (he’s 28), and some of it has to do with Favreau’s physical appearance. He looks less like a guy who works in the White House basement than a cast member of Entourage.
But a large part of the Favreau fervor is due to his central role in the Obama narrative. Obama’s appeal as a candidate was almost inseparable from his gifts as a talker. Unlike in most presidential campaigns of the past 25 years, in fact, the most memorable moments of the race came from speeches, addresses written at least in part by one Jon Favreau of North Reading, Massachusetts: the victory speeches in Iowa, the address in Berlin, the race speech in Philadelphia, the acceptance of the Democratic Party nomination in Denver.
By the time the campaign was over, Obama had been lauded as the most powerful and effective political orator in a generation, and Favreau, the president’s chief ghostwriter, his "mind reader" (as Obama calls him), had become a Washington celebrity. During the campaign, the New York Times and Newsweek profiled him; the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and others came calling soon after. He became fodder for political and gossip blogs. He not only appeared in a movie (the HBO documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama), he’s also reportedly dated a movie star.
From the first moments of his notoriety, though, Favreau has faced the problem of any good ghostwriter: trying to hide in plain sight. The man who speaks the words is supposed to get the credit. And with Obama, plenty of credit was due. A former president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama had made serious attempts to write fiction, penned a memoir that would go on to become a bestseller, and launched his career in national politics by giving a speech—the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention—he had written himself.
That sort of résumé makes Favreau’s job simultaneously "the worst and the best job in political speechwriting," as one writer put it. Less than a year in, it isn’t getting any easier: healthcare; Afghanistan; Wall Street; 120,000 troops still in Iraq. And though this month’s State of the Union address may be able to present a rosier picture of the economy, it will be delivered to a nation in which one in 10 workers doesn’t have a job.
There is something else, too. Call it the Hillary Prophecy. In early 2008, after Obama had pulled off the stunning victory in Iowa and the battle moved to New Hampshire, Clinton borrowed a phrase from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. "You campaign with poetry," Clinton said, "but you govern with prose." At the time, Clinton was trying to defend her own speaking style, her lack of rhetorical flourish. But it was also a clear indictment of Obama, the first time an opponent had pointed out that the man’s greatest asset—those words, that speechmaking—could also be a liability.
As the administration enters its second year, that critique has become increasingly common. Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, has written that Obama had grown boring. "And it’s not Solid Boring," she wrote, "which is fine in a president and may be good. It’s sort of Faux Eloquent Boring." It wasn’t just philosophical opponents making such assessments.
At a seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School in October, Ted Sorensen, JFK’s legendary ghostwriter, also chided the new president. "I think that [Obama is] a remarkable speaker," Sorensen said, "but his speeches are still largely in campaign mode."
By the time of the November elections, when Obama unsuccessfully stumped for incumbent Democratic governors in New Jersey and Virginia, the idea had surfaced in the pages of the New York Times, the ultimate arbiter of conventional wisdom. "The limits of rhetoric were on display last week when the president could not rescue two foundering candidates in governor’s races," writer Peter Baker observed. "Has Mr. Obama lost his oratorical touch?"