Jon Favreau: Obama's Mind Reader Prepares for Congressional Address

The young speechwriter is facing his biggest challenge yet with Obama's address to Congress.

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Jon Favreau looks like he should be prepping for an exam in college, not writing a landmark address for the world's most powerful man. But the boyish, 27-year-old former Senate aide is the chief speechwriter for President Barack Obama, and he now faces one of the biggest challenges of his young life: writing Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress, scheduled for Tuesday.

As one of the youngest people ever to serve in his job, "Favs," as his friends call him, has had nearly unlimited access to Obama for the past two years as the speechwriter for his presidential campaign. At that time, Favreau lived with six friends in a Chicago house. Sometimes he went unshaven for days and turned to video games for relaxation and diversion. Now, working out of a small basement office in the White House, he's trying to develop a more settled approach to his work. He has upgraded his wardrobe from jeans and sweaters to jackets and ties and lives in a one-bedroom condo near Washington's fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Friends say that when the deadline for a big speech looms, Favreau will devote himself to researching and writing for 16-hour stretches at a time. He often escapes to a quiet corner in a local coffee shop for a change of scenery and to avoid other staffers who might interrupt his ruminations. As a chain of people brush by in search of caffe latte and cappuccino, Favreau is rarely recognized, despite a spate of recent and unwelcome publicity. Anonymously, he focuses on his laptop, sipping double espressos, as he reads policy memos and past speeches and writes and rewrites one passage after another.

His most recent challenge was Obama's inaugural address. As Favreau prepared it, he listened to recordings of past inaugural addresses and sought advice from Peggy Noonan, one of President Ronald Reagan's most celebrated speechwriters and a Favreau favorite. One of Favreau's assistants researched various crises in U.S. history, and still another interviewed historians and passed their insights on to Favs.

The address turned into a somber description of the nation's current economic crisis, coupled with a promise to take fast action to get the economy moving. It wasn't a speech for the ages, but it did capture the moment, which is what Obama wanted.

It's not easy writing for Obama, who not only considers himself a writer but has two bestselling books to prove he is actually good at it. White House officials say Favreau, after working with Obama for four years, has become an expert on Obama's elegant and eloquent style of writing and speaking, an alter ego. Obama has called Favreau his mind reader, White House associates say.

The speechwriting process typically starts with Favreau chatting with Obama for an hour or so. Obama tells him what he wants to say, and Favreau types notes on his laptop. Favreau also consults with other senior Obama advisers, including David Axelrod, a former journalist and a longtime Obama confidant. Favreau submits a first draft, and Obama edits and rewrites it, in a collaborative process that often includes numerous other versions. They often work out the final draft together. Favreau compares being Obama's speechwriter to being "Ted Williams's batting coach," referring to one of the best hitters in baseball history.

After his 2003 graduation from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., as valedictorian and with a degree in political science, the young Massachusetts native worked for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as a press assistant and, later, speechwriter. Favreau, then 23, met briefly with Obama at the Democratic convention in 2004 when he was sent to tell the then Senate candidate to cut a line from his speech so it wouldn't duplicate Kerry's. Favreau recalls that Obama seemed "kind of confused—like, who is this kid?"

Later, when Obama was looking for a speechwriter, the new senator from Illinois invited Favreau to breakfast in the Senate Dining Room. After some chitchat about their families and baseball, Obama asked Favreau to explain his theory of speechwriting. "A speech can broaden the circle of people who care about this stuff," Favreau said, according to an account in the Washington Post. "How do you say to the average person that's been hurting, 'I hear you. I'm there'?" Favreau got the job.

Updated on 2/24/09.