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The Speech Obama Put on Repeat

Jon Favreau’s most enduring riffs.

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Jon Favreau, chief speechwriter to President Barack Obama since Obama’s arrival in the Senate eight years ago, will power down his government-issued laptop for good on March 1. As steward of the Obama Voice, Favreau worked on hundreds of speeches, but it was a little-known 2005 graduation address at Knox College, a school of 1,400 students in Galesburg, Illinois, that he has pointed to in interviews as the Ur-text for many of the Obama-Favreau collaborations that followed. Writer Reid Cherlin (who worked alongside Favreau as a White House spokesman) provides a sampling of lines from the speech that have had second lives:

Knox College commencement, June 4, 2005: “We have faced this choice before. At the end of the Civil War, when farmers and their families began moving into the cities to work in the big factories that were sprouting up all across America, we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wages at the worst working conditions?”

Osawatomie, Kansas, December 6, 2011: “You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary?”


Knox commencement: “Every man or woman for him- or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford: tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job: Life isn’t fair. It lets us say to the child who was born into poverty: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes we will always be the winner in life’s lottery, that we’re the one who will be the next Donald Trump, or at least we won’t be the chump to whom Donald Trump says: ‘You’re fired!’ ”

Democratic convention speech, September 6, 2012: “If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick. If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that’s just the price of progress. If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and ‘borrow money from your parents.’ ”


Knox commencement: “We will have to slough off some bad habits … Our children will have to turn off the TV set once in a while and put away the video games and start hitting the books.”

Manchester, New Hampshire, November 20, 2007: “And I have no doubt that we will still be talking about these problems in the next century if we do not have parents who are willing to turn off the TV once in a while, and put away the video games, and read to their child.”


Knox commencement: “There is no community-service requirement in the real world; no one is forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says that you should want, that you should aspire to, that you can buy. But I hope you don’t walk away from the challenge. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition.”

Wesleyan University commencement, May 25, 2008: “There’s no community-service requirement in the outside world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s. But I hope you don’t … Thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”


Knox commencement: “Today, on this day of possibility, we stand in the shadow of a lanky, rawboned man with little formal education who once took the stage at Old Main and told the nation that if anyone did not believe the American principles of freedom and equality, that those principles were timeless and all-inclusive, they should go rip that page out of the Declaration of Independence.”

Presidential campaign announcement speech, February 10, 2007: “By ourselves … change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible. He tells us that there is power in words.”

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