Interrogation

I’d Like to Congratulate Donald Trump on His Victory …

Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau on what the candidates—and the current president—should say on election night.

Jon Favreau, Former Director of Speechwriting for President Barack Obama at The John F. Kennedy School Of Government's "The Language and Legacy of Presidential Speechwriting" on March 27, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Jon Favreau, President Obama’s former director of speechwriting, at the Kennedy School of Government on March 27, 2013, in Boston.

Paul Marotta/Getty Images

The prospect of our long national campaign nightmare actually ending when results are announced from Florida or North Carolina next Tuesday is a delightful one, though it may be wishful thinking. Forget the specter of recounts or lawsuits, or even the lasting strain of Trumpism on our political culture. Let’s focus for now on a more specific question: How precisely are the two candidates going to deal with giving speeches Tuesday night, after this brutal campaign? Will Donald Trump concede? Should Hillary Clinton, if she emerges victorious, be gracious towards a rival who called her a “nasty woman” in a debate?

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To answer these questions, I spoke by phone this week with Jon Favreau, formerly President Obama’s chief speechwriter and now the co-host of Keepin’ It 1600, a popular podcast and part of Bill Simmons’ media empire. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Favreau’s toughest writing assignment, whether to freak out about the latest polls, and what President Obama should say if he has to give a speech about President-elect Trump.

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Isaac Chotiner: Ponder the unthinkable: If Trump wins next Tuesday, what would your advice be to Hillary Clinton on how to handle her concession speech?

Jon Favreau: [grunts] Run, hide. No, I think she has to be the adult. She would have to say, “The strength of our democracy is bigger than one person, even a president. We will go on. We will make this country stronger, and we will keep fighting the fight that we began in this campaign. We have to respect the results of the election. That’s why we have democratic institutions, and that’s what makes us different.” I think basically she would have to take the high road that Trump wouldn’t if it was the other way around.

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Suppose she wins. She’s going to come to that point in her speech where you congratulate your opponent on a race well-fought. How would you handle that? It would seem dishonest to do that with Trump, but you want to be gracious.

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She says, “Congrats on your race.” I don’t know if she has to say anything too nice to him, but she mentions him. I think she immediately pivots to the people who voted for him and says, “I’m going to be president of everyone, even if you didn’t vote for me. I’m going to be a president who listens to the concerns, the anxieties, the frustrations, of every single American. I know a lot of you may not agree with me, may not like me, didn’t vote for me, but my job is to try to serve everyone in this country, and I take that very seriously.”

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What was the most difficult speech you had to write for Obama in terms of the circumstances, not crafting the prose?

When we thought we might breach the debt limit. There was a possibility where he was going to have to go before the country in prime time and let everyone know that in fact we were going to breach the debt limit. Of course, we wouldn’t have defaulted right away, but we would have had to start talking about prioritizing payments and eventually defaulting, because that’s eventually what would happen. I remember talking about it with [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner. It scared the shit out of me, even contemplating writing that speech.

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You were talking to Geithner just to get economic background info?

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On what we would have to do. How would we pay Social Security checks? How would we pay our military? You start having to prioritize these different payments because you start running out of money. It wasn’t a joke. It was a real thing. It could have happened.

Did you actually write the speech?

I started writing it, and then I think however the deal came together, at the end of the day, we didn’t need it. It’s not like the president edited it. I don’t even know if he ever saw it. I was certainly in the middle of writing such a speech.

The reason I ask you this is because I think the hardest speech Obama would ever have to give is what he would say after Trump is elected, if Trump is elected. How would you approach that as a speechwriter, and how would it compare with your advice for Hillary if she loses?

When I was talking about what Hillary would say, a part of me was thinking about Obama even more so than Hillary: He’s the one who would have to engage in the peaceful transition of power. He still holds the presidency, and he has to hold the country together at this point. The way that you’d take a shot at Trump while doing that is that line that I originally said, which is, “This democracy is stronger than any one person, even the presidency of the United States. We will go on. We’ll be able to find a way forward together, as we have in the past.”

I think you probably would lay out a sense of the challenge that we’re facing, but you have to calm people. You have to calm the markets. You can’t add to the panic that would necessarily ensue if Donald Trump was elected president, and there would be panic.

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In terms of the people you know in the White House, what is the level of panic over Trump?

I helped out a little bit on the convention speech. I had some call from a reporter several months ago. The whole conceit of the story was, “Why is Obama attacking Trump so much? Is it a personal beef with him?” I’m like, “No, it’s not personal. The man represents a threat to democracy and a threat to national security and a threat to the values and beliefs that this country was founded upon.” Barack Obama believes that deeply. Obama doesn’t get panicked and get worried about these type of things, but I think he took Trump as a possible president deadly seriously, and the result was that speech that he gave at the convention.

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When you came into the White House, it had been after a campaign in which the Obama and Clinton teams didn’t seem to actually like each other. Did you have personal interactions with Hillary Clinton? And how long did it take for everyone to put aside the bruises of the primary.

I think it didn’t take that long. I think a lot of the folks on her campaign that we were probably the most annoyed with, like Mark Penn, didn’t follow her to the State Department. We liked a lot of the people that she initially had around her. I remember my first experience, and it wasn’t just a one-on-one interaction, but my first experience with her was the first Cabinet meeting. Senior staff surround the outside, and the Cabinet members are at the table with the president. I just remember feeling unbelievably impressed by her breadth of knowledge, not just when it was her turn to talk about foreign policy, but on a whole bunch of other topics. [The president] would always call on her. Say we were talking about the health care bill. He would be like, “Hillary, you were there. You were a part of the effort in ’93. What do you think about this?” She’d give her political read on something, she’d give her policy read on something, and she was just incredibly prepared and impressive. She’s also kind, a very kind person. Her staff, there’s unbelievable loyalty amongst the staff, and I always wondered what that was about, but really she remembers you. She remembers you, she listens to you. There’s some politicians that when you’re talking to them, they do the thing where they’re just waiting for you to finish so that they can keep talking at you. When she talks to you, she’s actually listening to what you’re saying.

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When I finally met Bill Clinton and talked to him, my experience with him was much more like he talks at you and tells a bunch of stories. He’s trying to impress you. She doesn’t do that. To me, she’s always reminded me more of Obama than she does of her husband.

Bill seems a little bit like not a real person who you could actually have a real conversation with. She seems more like one.

Yeah, I think so, too. You don’t see that from her in public. Her and Obama both see politics as … They see the silliness of the game. Bill Clinton loves the game of politics. He always will. Neither Hillary nor Obama loves the game of politics. They see it as a game that’s necessary to be played to get your policy agenda accomplished. They’ve learned how to play it in different ways, but they don’t love it. They think it’s silly, and they like to make fun of it from afar. Obama does that publicly. Most of his sense of humor is mocking politics and mocking the game. She doesn’t really do that publicly as much, but I think privately that’s where she is.

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You have something of an image as an Obama bro, which I’m sure you’ve read about in the press.

Yes, I have at times.

Looking back on it eight years later, how accurate do you think that image was?

It’s funny, because to anyone who grew up with me, and any of my high school and college friends, the notion that I was a frat-boy bro, they would laugh hysterically. That’s just not the kind of person I was growing up, but I understand. There’s a bunch of young guys on the Obama campaign who joked around a lot and could act like idiots once in a while, as I certainly proved from time to time. I understand that. In some ways, I understand the caricature, but we were a group of young people. There were women in there, too. It wasn’t just bros. We were all young, and we had this experience together. We took our jobs seriously, but we didn’t always take ourselves seriously. We liked to have a lot of fun, and we liked to joke around. That image gets out there, but I feel pretty OK with it. I think I’ve finally grown up, so that’s important.

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There’s a joke to be made about fighting the bro image by going to work for Bill Simmons.

At some point, you’ve just got to own it. Now I try to just lean into the stereotype as much as possible.

I’m sure you’ve seen that people like David Plouffe are always telling Democrats, “Relax, don’t be a bed-wetter,” but some people are more anxious. Where are you?

When I check Twitter and let myself get caught up in the latest polls, I want to start freaking out, but then always in the back of my head is Plouffe’s voice. I was the one in 2008 who, when we were a week out from Election Day, and the polls all looked good, internally everything felt good, when there was a stray Gallup daily tracking poll or a stray Susquehanna poll from Pennsylvania showing it tight, I would freak out about it. David Plouffe would walk over to my desk, and he would yell at me. He said, “What are you doing? We’re fine. Trust me.” He was right. David Plouffe was right in 2008, and David Plouffe was right in 2012.

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It’s funny. Since I’m no longer in the White House, I’ve almost let myself at times get caught up in the horse race on Twitter and cable and stuff like that. Every day or so, I have to tell myself to step back and think, “Big swings in this race don’t happen. The fundamentals are still there. The horse race that you see on cable is not indicative of what’s actually happening in real life.” I have to remind myself of that all the time.

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Sure, but the rational case for freaking out is that unlike against Mitt Romney or John McCain, even if you think Donald Trump only has a 10 percent or 15 percent chance of winning, it seems like that in itself is worth freaking out about.

Right. The question is, what is the good of freaking out? I think we should never be complacent. I never want anyone to be complacent, because if people don’t show up to vote, then yeah, the worst can happen. You’ve got to think, what’s most productive? Sometimes on the podcast, either we have Plouffe or Mitch Stewart, who was our battleground-state director. When you talk to people in the field, and you talk to people who on the Democratic side are responsible for identifying the voters we need, making sure they get to the polls, you calm yourself.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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