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Cody Keenan '02

Senior Advisor and Chief Speechwriter for President Barack Obama

cody keenanCody Keenan wrote speeches with President Barack Obama for more than a decade. Through times of challenge and change, Keenan helped President Obama craft remarks on every topic for every audience – from tiny backyards in Iowa to the biggest stadiums in the country; from a sermon in Selma to his farewell address. Keenan has been described as the “Springsteen” of Obama’s White House, and was named by British GQ as one of the “35 Coolest Men Under 38 (And a Half).” In January 2017, after thirty-six years of hopeful waiting, Keenan finally got the chance to write his dream speech – one in which President Obama welcomed the World Champion Chicago Cubs to the White House.

Educated at Northwestern and Harvard, Keenan’s passion for public service was sharpened as a young aide to Senator Edward Kennedy. Upon leaving the White House, Obama asked Keenan to continue their partnership as his collaborator on his upcoming book, and as his post-presidential speechwriter.

What was your first job out of college?

"I started as an unpaid intern in a windowless mailroom.  But there, reading letters both hopeful and heartbreaking from everyday Americans to their elected leaders, I learned just why it is that politics and public service matters so much.  I never forgot it - not as a policy aide and not as a speechwriter."

How did your political science degree impact your career development? 

"A course called "The Presidency" helped.  But really, all the courses I took laid the foundation on which I've built my career - from Congress, to campaigns, to the White House, and beyond."

How did your professional goals evolve since graduation?

"My professional goals evolved constantly because I remained open to change and risk, and chased down new policy areas and new political paths that interested and excited me.  I never planned on becoming a speechwriter. One day, after I'd already worked in Congress for a few years, my boss asked me if I could write. I said yes. That was the first time I'd write a speech for someone else. And when the Obama campaign came calling, I said "yes" again.  And even though I've been a speechwriter for Barack Obama for more than ten years now, I always work to keep getting better."

 What do you wish you knew as a student? 

Figure out what you like to do, study your brains out, and work really hard at it. I liked politics, I had a worldview, and I set out to work for and with people who wanted to advance that worldview.  I never set out to be a speechwriter.  I didn’t become one until five years after graduation, and that’s only because I remained open to taking risks and chasing opportunities.  (And in retrospect, if you want to become a speechwriter, take more history and English courses.) 

What extracurricular activities had the strongest influence on you attaining your current occupation?

"Sigma Chi, without question. It was my brothers who pushed me to move to Washington, to keep going when it got hard, to reach higher when an opportunity presented itself, to dig
deeper when I thought I couldn't keep doing the job anymore. I wouldn't have made it this far without them."