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President Obama’s international topics speechwriter addressed duties in the White House

April 8, 2014

World events stood still long enough for Ben Rhodes, a top aide to President Obama, to speak with Indiana State University students and faculty on Monday (April 7).

As assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, Rhodes coordinates the White House's responses to global events and writes all of the president's speeches on foreign policy and national security issues.

"When you're president of the United States, you're speaking to a million different audiences - the media and the American people. But what you're saying could be very closely watched by people around the world," Rhodes told dozens of Indiana State economics, political science and political communication students when he visited campus.

The visit was a collaboration setup between Chris McGrew, director of the Indiana State's Center for Global Engagement, and Lee Hamilton, a former U.S. Congressman from Indiana and director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University who introduced Rhodes to speechwriting.

"I was interested in politics and writing and went to graduate school to pursue writing and ultimately ended up applying for a job opening at a magazine in Washington, which led me to former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton," Rhodes said. "I ended up being his speechwriter for a few years before I started working on Barack Obama's presidential campaign."

Rhodes lived and breathed his first experience working on a presidential campaign, adding, "For two years, all I thought about was what I would write that would get Barack Obama elected."

Rhodes' speech writing experience includes crafting Obama's speech to the nation following the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound by U.S. Navy Seals on May 1, 2011 and the president's 2009 address at Cairo University in Egypt.

Drafting such speeches begins with Rhodes sittign down with the president and walking through the arguments and points the president wants to communicate. The process becomes more complicated when members of the cabinet look to insert their viewpoints, though.

"It's challenging to incorporate so many different views into a speech, while letting the president say what he wants to says," Rhodes said. "If I would take every edit from every person, the speech wouldn't make sense and I have to negotiate with people sometimes to find out what has to be included. Then, the president edits it and sometimes there are 20 edits before the speech is made, but it's about helping the president say what he wants to say."

One of the keys to speechwriting is remembering the audience.

"If you give a speech on Afghanistan, you know Americans are going to watch that speech and American service members are going to watch that speech, but you also know that people in Afghanistan are going to watch that speech and the Taliban is going to watch that speech," he said. "You have to keep all of these audiences in mind when writing for a president that has a global audience."

Because words are of most important when drafting a foreign policy speech, Rhodes said, so he seeks input from a broad range of perspectives, including people at American embassies abroad and natives of the country the speech is being given in, which adds details the audience can connect with.

"You have to think through all of the possible audiences when writing a speech, almost like a checklist, to make sure you haven't forgotten anyone," he said. "When the Bin Laden raid happened, we had to plan for different scenarios. I tried to sit down beforehand and write the speech, but I thought I would jinx it. When a tragedy or world events happen, you have to make policy on the fly. In those cases, I sit down with officials and decide how to communicate our response and make policy through the statement."

There's little down time for Rhodes, who admits his job can be stressful and requires him to "be on" all the time.

"It makes you wonder what it was like before email and cellphones," he said. "The political environment is uncomfortable in Washington, D.C. and the media environment demands conflict. We live in a world where you have to respond to people who criticize you. This environment could make you lose sight of the good things about working in the White House, so you just have to stay focused on what you're there to do."

Jennifer Mullen, who teaches introduction of communication and PR 368, said she encouraged her students to attend Rhodes' speech because he reiterated what they learn in class.

"In both courses, we talk about crisis communication and different audiences that the message has to go out to, so it was great when he talked about having to get a message out to the masses and the need to understand how that message will be heard across different cultures," she said. "Message is important, of course, but it was also nice to hear him respond to student questions about the good and bad of a job like his. In my class, I tell the students this isn't a 9 to 5 job."

For students who want the challenge of a political life, Rhodes recommended getting involved in local campaigns, as he did with a New York city council race.

"It's all a way to figure out what path you want to go down," he said. "There will be campaigns in 2016 and you may be able to make phone calls or knock on doors, which is a good way to get to know people."

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or betsy.simon@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Ben Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, spoke to Indiana State students about coordinating the White House's responses to global events.

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