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Cody Keenan, a senior advisor and chief speechwriter to US President Barack Obama, on stage for DCU 'Fireside Chats' series with

DCU 'Fireside Chat' series: Senior Advisor to Barack Obama says social media has 'ruined' politics

A senior advisor to former US President Barack Obama says social media, in some ways, has “ruined politics”.

Political candidates are spending less time and resources crafting speeches about what they stand for and making a case for their policy, instead focussing on devising a “viral tweet”.

Cody Keenan, who was chief speech writer for President Obama, made the remark in DCU’s ‘Fireside Chats’ series in The Helix earlier today.

Speaking to Dr Jane Suiter, Director of the Institute on the Future of Media  Journalism (@FUJO), Mr Keenan made the remark while discussing the US elections next year.

“I think in a lot of ways social media has ruined politics. I mean Barack Obama loved giving speeches. It’s his way of constructing an argument and presenting it to the world. And he spends a lot of time on them, the big ones and the little ones.

“At this point in 2007 [prior to the 2008 US election campaign], we had four speechwriters on the staff and he was giving multiple speeches a day. There are still front running campaigns who still don’t have a speechwriter right now. And I think the reason is everyone just thinks they can do a viral. They just come up with that perfect tweet that gets a lot of likes and retweets. That will show everybody. But that stuff is ephemeral,” he said.

Mr Keenan also ruled out Michelle Obama running for the White House. While saying he had no doubt Michelle Obama would stand a very good chance of winning the election, he added there was “no safer bet than the fact that she won’t” run.

Elsewhere in the talk, Mr Keenan told Dr Suiter that Mr Obama paid no attention to tweets about him issued by his successor, the current US President Donald Trump.

He added “liberals were upset” that Mr Obama didn’t speak out more against Mr Trump. “But that’s not his job, that is our job,” Mr Keenan said. “He has just as much power and voice as we do now."

“[And] it’s partially out of respect for the President and the institutions, and norms. But we also said on our way out the door that any time American values are threatened or world instability, then we’ll speak out.

“That didn’t take long. It took about a week,” Mr Keenan said to laughter from the audience, adding he spoke out when Trump pulled the US from the Paris agreement on climate change shortly after his inauguration in 2017. He also added that Mr Obama's predecessor, George Bush, never spoke out during his successor's presidency. 

The other occasion Mr Obama spoke out was when they tried to repeal his Affordable Healthcare Act. “But he’s not going to go out there every single day,” Mr Keenan added.

“But one thing I hope is that with Obama staying quiet, we have more oxygen out there for a Democrat to step up, and become the moral base of the party. I haven’t seen that happen as much as I’d like yet.”

Speaking about Barack Obama’s visit in to Ireland in 2011, Mr Keenan said he took great pride in drafting Mr Obama’s famous College Green speech, describing it as a “great blast to write” with references to quotes from WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney.

Mr Keenan also told the audience that Mr Obama took his Irish connection “very, very personally”, and when he visited his ancestoral homestead in Moneygall, Co Offaly, “he was walking around saying, ‘these are the same floorboards my ancestors walked on’”.  

Speaking about politics in the US, he said: “The country has changed dramatically in the course of couple of years. But whoever’s in office has the megaphone right? And gets to set the tone, and gets to set the priorities

“I don’t think of America as any more racist than it was three years ago. But you have a president who has given implicit permission for the KKK to march with their hoods on. It certainly looks that way. He has basically given permission for racists to be racist,” he said.

Mr Keenan also spoke about a “worrisome trend” he has identified on college campuses in the US.

“A lot of liberals on college campuses are trying to force out voices they don’t agree with. I don’t think that’s the way to go,” he said.

People might find the views and arguments of others as “loathsome”. But Mr Keenan said these arguments should be “challenged”, and not to “disinvite” the people who make them.

Speaking about his career as a speechwriter, he said the best speeches he crafted with Barack Obama were often texts he had been working on through the night, and were passed back and forth between himself and Mr Obama numerous times.

A good speech begins not with the speechwriter, but the person giving the speech. It comes from a good collaborative relationship with much input from the person who is speaking, he said. 

Every speech has a beginning, middle and end, a few anecdotes, and lots of research, Mr Keenan said.


2nd October, 2019