During much of his State of the Union address last night, President Joe Biden looked like he was having a good time. But you can be pretty sure that writing Biden’s speech was less fun for his speechwriter.

I suspected that was the case because I’ve watched West Wing five times, including the episodes when the usually dyspeptic Toby suffers even more through writing the speech for the fictional President Josiah Bartlet. But now I really know it, because former presidential speechwriter Mary Kate Cary, who worked for President George H. W. Bush, has provided a behind-the-scenes look at the process that produces speeches like Biden’s.

“Sure, the State of the Union speech is one of the great rituals of our American democracy,” writes Cary, an adjunct professor of politics and a senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “But it’s also an unusually difficult and thankless job for any speechwriter.”

What the president wants to say and what Americans want to hear from the president often diverge. A speechwriter must artfully reconcile those two things. Complicating the task is the need to cram lots of policy recommendations into the speech and to provide enough numbers that impress but don’t bore the audience outside of the House chamber.

“It could take anywhere from hours to weeks to agree on the policy conflicts and budget numbers,” writes Cary. Did she ever write a State of the Union? Not a chance, she writes: “I’ve seen the process up close and was always relieved to have dodged the bullet.”

Also today:

Naomi Schalit

Democracy Editor

President Joe Biden gestures as he delivers his State of the Union address on February 07, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

State of the Union address is Biden’s chance to shine – and a speechwriter’s burden to get voters to listen

Mary Kate Cary, University of Virginia

How does a State of the Union speech get written? A former White House presidential speechwriter describes the many hands in this process.

Health + Medicine

Politics + Society

Science + Technology


Ethics + Religion

Trending on site

Today's graphic