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Former Obama staffers Cody Keenan, Josh Earnest discuss presidency

'Which America is going to prevail?'

White House
Former Obama staffers compare past, current White House.

Cody Keenan and Josh Earnest, former staffers to President Barack Obama — and two “old buddies” who worked together from “day one to day 2,922 of the Obama administration” — discussed the press, the presidency and the political climate then and now at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications last week. 

In a talk moderated by journalism professor Peter Slevin, Keenan, who served as Obama’s speechwriter, and Earnest, former Whitehouse press secretary, analyzed the conventions of their former jobs and the stark differences of those positions under the current administration. 

In the wake of the recent midterm elections and amid mounting speculation surrounding 2020 presidential candidates, Keenan said the results demonstrate that young voters, who pose a new vision for America’s political future, could be a deciding factor in who runs and who is nominated. 

“Congress is starting to look like America, and that’s because young people are turning out to vote,” Keenan said, speaking to students and Evanston residents on Monday (Nov. 12). “But that’s kind of one of the big struggles of our time: Which America is going to prevail? 

As Slevin pointed out during the discussion, the average age of Congress members dropped by a decade after the midterm elections. This year, the city of Evanston not only recorded the highest total voter turnout in more than two decades but Northwestern once again competed to keep its title as a leader in voter engagement and turnout among the nation’s universities.

Highlighting the change in the country’s political landscape since they left the White House, Keenan and Earnest spoke about the ambitions, difficulties and setbacks of the Obama Administration. They also criticized the actions and optics of the Trump Administration.

Keenan, who continues to serve as Obama’s “resident wordsmith” and now teaches a course on speechwriting at Northwestern, mused on how presidential language has changed, and how the process that went into preparing the former president’s speeches has changed. 

“(President Obama) cared about them a lot. They matter, you know. It’s a way to organize your thoughts. It’s a way to think through what you want to say, rather than just pop off,” Keenan said. “And for a big speech he would be precise down to the word choice in certain sentences.” 

Looking back, Earnest said the “Beer Summit” held in 2009 in response to the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates was not Obama’s “proudest moment,” and the optics of Obama playing a round of golf following the murder of journalist Jim Foley should have been reconsidered. 

Earnest said some of Trump’s recent decisions — taking a raincheck on the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I in France and revoking journalist Jim Acosta’s access to the White House — would not be taken as lightly during the Obama Administration, just as Trump’s frequent escapes to the golf course are not as newsworthy today.

“The bar is so different, and we need to figure out a way to effectively handle that,” Keenan said.

Still, Earnest said that while the relations between the Obama administration and the press corps should not be considered the “Golden Age,” the approach he took toward the tension during the daily press briefing (now no longer daily) was vastly different from the way current White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has chosen to handle it. 

“I don’t recognize the job anymore,” said Earnest, who believes the manner in which the next press secretary of the White House will be “enormously consequential” in reasserting norms on the telling the truth.  

As for the office of the president, Keenan and Earnest agreed that while Trump has a good chance at being reelected, they’re hoping Beto O’Rourke and Mitch Landrieu decide to challenge him.  

“I think, at a minimum, I want competency, honesty, decency — things like that,” Keenan said.

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