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Fmr. Chief Speechwriter for President Obama on Joe Biden’s inaugural address: ‘I was blown away by it’

Cody Keenan, Former Chief Speechwriter for President Barack Obama joins Yahoo Finance Live to dissect President Joe Biden's inaugural address and break down where Joe Biden's speech fits into history.

Video Transcript


- I want to get some more reactions now to that inaugural speech. We're joined now by Cody Keenan, former chief speechwriter for President Barack Obama.

So Cody, a lot of powerful moments in that speech. President Biden saying, America has been tested and we've come out stronger. He said that we will repair our alliances to face today and tomorrow's challenges. Calling for unity, and then also calling for us to fight together the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm wondering just first from you what your reactions were to President Biden's inaugural speech.

CODY KEENAN: Yeah. I'll be honest, I was blown away by it. I don't just think it meant the moment. I think it's one of the better inaugural addresses in history.

A great inaugural address really has to-- you know, we set these kind of high expectations for them, but it's usually based on the great lines we know. You know, ask not what your country can do for you. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Basically, anything from Lincoln's second.

But a great inaugural address really fits the moment, speaks to the time and place. And I think the president did that very, very well. Hats off to him and his speechwriters. As they build out their team, they should consider hiring Amanda Gorman to join them because she was outstanding.

But you know, few presidents have walked in to a hand like this, have been dealt such a lousy hand. And there's so much to do. And there are a few presidents that meet the moment better than Joe Biden because of who he is and what he's been through in his life.

I mean, this is somebody who's been dealt incredibly painful hands throughout his entire life. And he doesn't feel sorry for himself. You'll never hear him whisper any self-- you'll never hear a whisper of self-pity. He just gets up, does the work with optimism, and moves on.

And you know, a line he said today echoed something he said yesterday. Don't tell me things can't change. They can and they do. And that's really kind of the tone that he's set here. It's a story he's been writing his entire life. It's a story that America could use right now.

- Cody, there was so much I think that moved so many people listening to the speech. But at the very beginning, when he said this is a great nation. We are good people. Millions of Americans hold that dear in their hearts.

And I'm curious. In the process of writing a speech, does the speechwriter, someone like you, capture the voice of a Joe Biden? Or does Joe Biden actually write the speech with the speechwriter? Because you truly believe that is who this man is-- a great nation, we are good people, when he says that.

CODY KEENAN: Yeah. That is who he is. I mean, that's who Joe's been his entire life. There's, there's really no varnish over Joe Biden. And you know, I know his chief speechwriter really well. One of his senior advisors who's been with him for decades worked on the speech too. But it's, you know, my understanding is Joe worked on it himself up through this morning.

And the only way a real speechwriter presidential relationship works is if all the words are the president's-- if he's directly involved in it, if he's leading the process, if he's in there working on it. That's what it is. You don't just write a speech and stick it into a prompter for somebody to read. Every word should have been meticulously and carefully poured over by the president. And in this case, it was.

- Cody, I'm wondering if-- you've been touching on it a little bit. But if you can really contextualize a little bit more for us President Biden's speech. Especially after we had four years with a president who was more prone to tweets than speeches.

And even, you know, the outgoing president's last speech, he riffed throughout the entire thing. Went completely off script. Ending it with good luck. Have a good life. I'll see you again soon. You know, I'm wondering if you can really kind of contrast what we're seeing here as this is essentially President Biden's first entree to us all as president with this speech.

CODY KEENAN: Yeah. I mean, everything in this speech was a contrast to the last four years. I'll even go further and say everything over the past several couple of weeks has been a contrast to the past four years. Because Joe Biden has had to step into this role that's basically been vacant for the past couple of months over this transition.

And over the past couple of weeks, he's been laying out the detailed nuts and bolts of his plans. You know, last night he led a memorial service on the National Mall which is, it's amazing to think about, but no national leader has done that until now. And it was an incredible moment of catharsis for everyone across the country who's lost somebody, or just hasn't been able to hug anybody in months, and needed some way to feel like they were part of a healing process.

That's, when we talk about tone, you know, that's mocked a lot when somebody says you know so-and-so had a new tone today. But that's the tone that Joe Biden sets as he's taking office. Tone is about more than words. It's about the way you carry yourself. It's about the people you hire in your administration. It's about the priorities you put in place. And he's been setting that tone now for the past couple of months.

So in going forward, he'll continue to do that. I mean, kind of like I said earlier, this is a man who has been through deep traumas in his life. And we're in a moment of deep trauma right now. I mean, no president's walked into 400,000 dead Americans. We're approaching the height of the pandemic. The economy is in shambles. You know, there's an ongoing cyber attack at all levels of the government. The transition was a mess.

He's really walking into dark times here. And it's going to get worse before it gets better. But for him to stand up there with optimism-- you know, not naive optimism, but a hard earned optimism that he's built over a lifetime of struggle himself. I think it's something that's really important and that people are going to take away from this.

- All right. Cody Keenan, former chief speechwriter for President Barack Obama. Thank you so much for joining us and giving us some of your thoughts.