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« Gallup: More Americans Don't Want Health Care Bill Passed | Blog Home Page | Excerpts of President Obama's Afghanistan Speech »

Obama and His Speechwriters Tackle Another High Stakes Address

In both his campaign for the presidency and his first year in office, Barack Obama has made countless speeches billed as "major addresses." There is no doubting that tonight's speech outlining a long-awaited policy decision on America's engagement in Afghanistan rises to that level, and marks another test of his, and his speechwriting team's, reputation for rhetorical flourish.

According to the White House, President Obama worked throughout the weekend on tonight's speech with Ben Rhodes, his top wordsmith on national security issues. Polishing the speech will continue throughout the day today -- something not necessarily uncommon for this kind of speech, veterans of presidential speechwriting say -- but particularly so for this president.

"There aren't that many speeches in the course of a year that rise to the level of the speech that the president's going to give [Tuesday]," said one former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. "There is a much more careful weighing of the words in a speech like this than in just about any other speech that a president will give."

Tonight, Obama faces the pressure of not only announcing a complicated strategy to an increasingly skeptical public, but also explaining the decision, and most likely outlining an end game as well.

"The president now not only needs to explain his case, but to try to rally public support and hold off criticisms in his own party," said Peter Wehner, a member of the speechwriting team for President George W. Bush as the Afghanistan war was launched in 2001. "It's politically complicated as well as morally important. When you take all of those things together, it's a pretty high stakes speech."

Any speech must be written mindful of the audience it's being delivered to. A speech outlining military strategy as this one will has arguably the most complicated audience, including lawmakers, the American people, international allies, and the enemy itself. Setting this one at West Point rather than, say, having an Oval Office address, was a wise move, Wehner said.

"You have the capacity to give a longer speech when you have an audience as opposed to an Oval Office speech," he said. President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks ran nearly an hour. "There's no way you can give an Oval Office speech of anything like that. So you have the capacity in these speeches to explain it better."

Special steps will likely have been taken to ensure that any leaks are kept to a minimum with this kind of speech. And the circle of advisers who weigh in, though dependent on the style of each administration, would be kept tighter as well, with the national security and foreign policy arms playing the biggest role.

In Obama's case, he has tended to take an even larger, more personal role in the process, which has a significant impact on the team crafting the speech with him. Ultimately, the job of the speechwriter is to "explain the president's case in the best way possible," and to do so "in a way that captures his voice and hopefully elevates it ... makes it stronger, better and more persuasive," Wehner said.

One thing to be wary of in a speech of this magnitude is overreaching, said Wehner. "There are certain moments where you understand that you're writing speeches for history," he said. "You're cognizant of that and you want to take that into account, and that hopefully spurs you to do a better job. But there's often a temptation among speechwriters in key moments to overwrite. Everybody wants to become Churchill, and there's only one Churchill."