A former Obama speechwriter on how to make America optimistic again

The positivity president.
The positivity president.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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David Litt spent nearly four years as a speechwriter for Barack Obama—first on the Democratic National Committee during the 2012 re-election campaign, and then in the White House. In a new book, Thanks, Obama—My Hopey, Changey White House Years, Litt describes the rollercoaster ride of helping craft the president’s words from the highs of his re-election to the lows of the healthcare.gov debacle.

We caught up with Litt, who now writes and produces at comedy video company Funny or Die, to ask about the role of speechwriters—and speeches—in an America where high-flown rhetoric has become an anachronism and words seem increasingly estranged from truth. We also asked him about where Obama gets his unflappable optimism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Litt himself remains an optimist, seeing an opportunity in the divisiveness that Donald Trump has created.

These are excerpts from a longer interview, and have been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Quartz: I want to start with a thought experiment. Imagine that you’ve been hired back as a speechwriter by the next Democratic White House, after years of a president [Trump] who is focused on appealing to his base and keeping the country divided. Now a Democratic president wants to reunite it. How would you write for that president, to speak to a country that has grown more and more divided and suspicious?

David Litt: I think that for all of the divisiveness that we’ve seen, when you look at most Americans, we still do share a lot of values in common. Right now eighty-something percent of Americans think it would be wrong to deport Dreamers because they feel like, “These kids, it’s not their fault that they were brought here.” If you’re willing to work hard and you’re willing to give back to your country, you can become an American. That’s a shared value we have.

If you look at the response to president Trump’s comments in Charlottesville, it was not just Democrats who said this is reprehensible; in both parties voters thought that way. So I think the next Democratic president is going to need to speak to those shared values and explain how they’re reflected in the policies that person is promoting. And it’s going to be important to recognize that it’s not enough to just talk about values—we also need institutions that reflect those values and protect those values, even in moments when they’re not popular.

Barack Obama with David Litt in the Oval Office.
Barack Obama with David Litt in the Oval Office.
Image: Courtesy of David Litt

Obama’s rhetoric was all about hope and change and optimism, and Trump’s is the polar opposite. It’s about fear, about the need to defend oneself against dangers. Have these sorts of rhetorical swings always happened between presidencies, or is this one particularly different?

This one’s pretty different! The headline phrase in Trump’s inauguration was “American carnage.” That’s not a speech you could imagine George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan giving. So I do think that there is a total departure, not from what Democrats or Republicans did, but from what presidents used to do. President Trump’s strategy seems to be to convince you that everything is broken, and to in some way contribute to that brokenness, in order to then come in and say “I alone can fix it.”

I think it gives not just Democrats, but everyone who believes in the kind of America that both parties have professed to believe in for a long time, an opportunity. Because at this point optimism is going to be something that belongs to whoever runs against Trump. A sense that we’re all in this together is going to belong to whoever runs against Trump. Trump has ceded those values, that are American values, to his opposition. He doesn’t—I don’t think—even realize that he’s doing this. But politically it creates an advantage when we’re trying to figure out how we end this thing.

There’s a lot of talk about truth having become devalued in politics and lying becoming normalized. Do you see a way back from that?

I think there are two possibilities, and both of them end with lying becoming politically risky. If senators thought that lying would cost them their jobs, they would start telling the truth.

Either it’s going to happen because Americans say, “Clearly you’re lying to us; we’re going to vote you out of office and replace you with someone we can believe, maybe not even someone we always agree with, but we can trust”; or some of the policies that Republicans in Congress are lying about are going to get passed. At some point the truth is going to catch up to them. If this health-care bill had passed and people with preexisting conditions were no longer able to afford insurance [after its supporters had claimed they would be], at that point the lie would no longer work. I think it will become politically risky at that point because you have tape of somebody having lied in the past.

I hope it’s the first way and not the second. Either way, people are not going to come around just out of the goodness of their own hearts. But politicians will come around real fast when they think that something could cost them an election.

In the book you talk at one point about your doubts that a political speech can really have power anymore. How do you feel about it now?

There were times for sure when, writing speeches in a digital age, I felt like a horse-and-buggy repairman. But that said, there are also always going to be times when a president’s speeches can have an impact.

One is rallying the country after a tragedy or during a crisis. Another is directing the focus of the country to success stories or to stories that reflect the president’s values. And then the third is not so much persuading opponents—because in this polarized age that’s become really difficult for a president to do—but in rallying, not necessarily just your hardcore base, but the people who believed in you at one point, reminding them, “this is why you believe and it’s worth continuing to believe.” Some of the speeches that I am most proud of were speeches along those lines.

That was actually going to be my next question: Which is your favorite speech that you wrote during your time in the White House?

Well there’s two favorites. I wrote a speech that president Obama personally edited pretty extensively, that was delivered at the NAACP convention in 2015 about criminal justice reform.

This was the first time we had woven together all the different threads of criminal justice reform. Our audience was both Democrats, who are likely to see this as a moral issue, and Republicans, who are likely to see this as an issue of fiscal conservatism—why are we spending all this money keeping nonviolent offenders locked up when we could spend it on schools or roads or bridges instead? One of the things that I’m very proud of about that speech is that I think we managed to combine those arguments so they flowed together seamlessly. And we also were able to combine argument and policy detail and story, and that’s what you always hope will happen with the speech.

The other speech I’m really proud of was helping to bring Luther the anger translator, played by Keegan-Michael Key, onstage with president Obama for the [White House] Correspondents Dinner.

[I was proud] not just that it was funny, which it was, but that we included the part where president Obama got legitimately angry about climate-change deniers in Congress and Luther the anger translator tried, and failed, to calm him down. So we were able to include a serious message about an important issue in something that we knew lots people were going to see, because it was funny.

I remember watching the speech with Luther the anger translator and thinking, “That was pretty ballsy.” You were taking something that poked at racial prejudices and turning them into humor around the president. And though that was towards the end of his term, it felt to me like a risky thing to do. Did it feel risky?

It didn’t. It felt right. We had thought about it in other years. President Obama was already a big fan of Key and [Jordan] Peele and he liked the Luther character. [In previous years] it never felt right. But 2015 was the year where we were kind of saying “bucket”—you know, one of Obama’s jokes was, “After the mid-term elections my advisors asked me, Mr. President, do you have a bucket list? And I said, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.” There was a sense that with the midterm elections behind us, we were going to do the stuff that felt right and worry a little less about all the other things that get in the way. I think that’s why bringing in Luther the anger translator just made so much sense.

Obama spoke last week on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, and said, “Your response [to difficult challenges] has to be to reject cynicism and reject pessimism and push forward with a certain infectious and relentless optimism—not blind optimism…but a hard-earned optimism that’s rooted in…stories of very real progress.” That optimism certainly comes across as one of his defining characteristics, but was he really that optimistic? And why do you think it was?

I think the kind of optimism that I found so attractive in president Obama as a candidate, and that I think really infused his White House, was, as he said, not blind optimism but an optimism rooted in perseverance. The idea that over time, if we do the work, things will get better. That’s different than saying, “Tomorrow is going to be better than today, just because.” It was the sense that if we do our part, other people will do their part. And we might take two steps forward and one step back, but in the end we are going to make progress, and that’s more nuanced than politicians often get.

But I also think it was borne out by many of his greatest accomplishments. They were things that almost didn’t happen or took longer than some of our supporters would have liked, but we’re seeing now many of those achievements turning out to be harder to undo than Republicans and president Trump thought initially. And one of the reasons, I think, is because they were the product of not just seizing the moment when the moment appears, but of doing the work every single day to build those moments and create those opportunities.

Do you think Obama attracted optimistic people to him, or did he make those kinds of people? Did people come in as pessimists and leave as optimists?

I think it’s both. One of the interesting things about the Obama White House and Obamaworld is that the people who ended up there were not people who necessarily thought they were going to be in politics from the moment they were 10 or 12 years old. It’s often people who felt like they wanted to be part of whatever the most important thing was. And what president Obama was able to do was make the case that that thing is politics.

I think that’s going to have a ripple effect, because you have all of these people—I’m certainly one of them—who did not think of themselves as political people but now say, “You know what, there’s no better way to make an impact.” I hope that down the road we see changes in our politics because of that.

The other thing, that I do write about in the book, is the fact that president Obama was persistent. I certainly was not the kind of person that always said, “Well, this is going to work out.” There were moments when I really wasn’t sure and there were moments when I wondered whether president Obama was right to have that sense of optimism. And I’m happy to say that in every instance I found myself looking back and saying, “Man, president Obama was totally right.”