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Cody Keenan Shares Lessons from Professional Journey to Obama White House

President Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter spoke at a StudioLab lecture event

Even though Cody Keenan (WCAS ’02) has enjoyed a career that’s taken him from couch-surfing in Washington, DC, while looking for a job, to working as a low-level staffer worker in legendary US senator Edward Kennedy’s office, to President Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter, there are lessons from his journey that are universally applicable. 

One of those lessons: there is no such thing as a set career path.

“If I had sat down when I was in college and said, ‘OK, here is the trajectory I’m going to take and the decisions I’m going to make to be the chief speechwriter in the White House for the first Black president 10 years from now,’ that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t happen,” Keenan said. “It only happens because you say yes to crazy things.”

For Keenan, that meant volunteering to write a floor speech for Kennedy when he didn’t know how to write a speech, or spending a month in Iowa before the state’s 2008 caucuses to help Obama turn out voters. Keenan’s ability to earn those opportunities stemmed from another valuable lesson:

If you’re asked to do something at your first job, do it the best you can.

Early in Keenan’s time working for Kennedy, a senior staffer pulled him aside and suggested he improve his attitude toward menial tasks. Subsequently, Keenan resolved himself to tackle everything with gusto, whether it was making copies or cleaning up after the senator’s dog.

“This first job won’t determine what you do, but what you get out of it and what you make out of it will determine where you end up, how much you learn, how you conduct yourself,” Keenan said. “Especially in politics, but I think it’s true everywhere, if you are that person who says yes, who works hard, is cheerful, you’ll go really far.”

Cody Keenan

Keenan spoke January 24 during “A Day with Cody Keenan: Finding the Silences: Building Calm into the Chaos,” the fourth installment of the Personal Development StudioLab’s Curious Life lecture series, following events with Karen MayArshay Cooper, and Susan Garcia Trieschmann. Since leaving the White House, Keenan has authored the New York Times bestseller Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America (Mariner Books, 2022) and has served as a visiting professor in political science at Northwestern, flying in from New York once per week to teach a class.

Keenan is also a partner at Fenway Strategies, a boutique speechwriting and strategic communications firm founded by Obama's first chief speechwriter Jon Favreau and national security spokesman, Tommy Vietor.

Under Obama, Keenan learned plenty. He watched the former president manage duress by simplifying the meals he ate, limiting his attire to a handful of suit, shirt, and tie combinations, or reserving an hour per day for “POTUS time” that was dedicated to writing or reading.

For Keenan himself, the job of crafting speeches daily for the president was stressful, especially in times of crisis. There were sacrifices Keenan had to make — missing weddings and giving up weekends and maybe losing some friends because of his schedule. To cope, Keenan would take walks and cook and read letters to Obama before going home for the day.

Though the stakes aren’t the same, that’s also a valuable lesson for students as they navigate college and their entry into the professional world.

“Rituals became a way to stay calm because we were never off duty,” Keenan said. “Anything I knew I could do every day… if I felt like a hot-air balloon flying around, those were the things that brought me to the ground.”

About the Personal Development StudioLab 

Codirected by Joseph Holtgreive, assistant dean for undergraduate engineering, and Bruce Ankenman, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, the Personal Development StudioLab is a space where students develop and practice their life approach, as they hone their craft and connect with themselves and others, to create a better future. 

The StudioLab supports the McCormick School of Engineering and Northwestern University by providing students with courses, opportunities, resources, and events that increase awareness, understanding, and healthy responses to their physical, emotional, and cognitive experiences.  

Through this environment, the StudioLab helps transform students into mindful, curious, whole-brain thinkers who integrate all elements of their being to best clarify, frame, and address the important and complex problems of life in a meaningful and fulfilling way.