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State of the Union: Meet Cody Keenan, President Obama's Speechwriter

Image: President Barack Obama works with Cody Keenan, left, the president's director of speechwriting, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, and Jen Psaki, foreground, Director of  White House Communications, in the Oval Office of the White

President Barack Obama works with Cody Keenan, left, the president's director of speechwriting, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, and Jen Psaki, foreground, Director of White House Communications, in the Oval Office of the White House on the eve of his final State of the Union in Washington, Jan. 11, 2016 DOUG MILLS / The New York Times via Redux

Cody Keenan started his political career in a windowless office in Washington.

Thirteen years later, he's still in one. Only now it's at the White House.

Keenan, Obama's chief speechwriter, was up until early Tuesday morning in that corner room in the basement, making final, frantic edits to his boss' last State of the Union, to be delivered that night.

He tends to pull all-nighters for such big speeches, which reminds him of graduate school. This time, however, his professor is the world's most powerful man — and a celebrated writer himself.

No pressure.

"An equal mix of hope and fear," Keenan, 35, told NBC News, describing the moment he starts working on a first draft.

Meet Cody Keenan, President Obama's State of the Union Speechwriter 2:12

Keenan said he fights through those emotions until the end, frequently submitting updated drafts to the president, an attentive and demanding editor.

"He wrote two books before I ever came around and he's better at this than I am, so that's always helpful," Keenan said in an interview at his desk, sporting the thick beard that he grows during SOTU season, a look that draws ribbing from Obama, who calls him "Hemingway."

A Chicago native, Keenan started the 2016 beard earlier than usual, refusing to shave while his beloved Cubs were in the playoffs last fall. He jokes that he'll keep growing it until the Cubs, an off-season favorite to win the World Series, actually pull it off.

In reality, he's got a more important date in mind — his pending wedding to Kristen Bartoloni, a White House researcher, who's already given him a gift certificate for a straight-razor shave.

President Obama's speechwriter Cody Keenan: A look behind the scenes 3:33

Keenan has been chief speechwriter since 2012, when his predecessor, Jon Favreau, left the White House to write television scripts. While all speechwriters strive for anonymity, Favreau became known for his ability to capture big, sweeping themes for Obama while Keenan, in contrast, has earned a reputation for a more more earthy approach, invoking the daily struggles of ordinary Americans.

He's been described as a Springsteen to Favreau's Beethoven.

"My general rule is, If you wouldn't say that to a friend in a bar, don't make me put it in a speech," he told graduates of New York University's Graduate School of Public Service last spring.

Image: President Barack Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address
President Barack Obama preparing to give his 2014 State of the Union address, drafted by Cody Keenan. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

The son of retired advertising executives, Keenan worked his way from the bottom rung of Washington politics after getting an unpaid job in the windowless mailroom of the office of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. He left as a legislative aide to attend Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. During a summer break, he worked as an intern under Favreau on Obama's first presidential campaign, and rejoined the campaign after he graduated.

When Obama was elected, Keenan became part of Favreau's White House speechwriting team, focusing on commencements and eulogies — including Obama's remembrance of Keenan's old boss, Kennedy.

President Barack Obama with speechwriter Cody Keenan, who dressed as a pirate for an Oval Office photo shot for use in the President’s speech to the White House Correspondents Association dinner May 9, 2009. Pete Souza / The White House file

In 2009, Keenan dressed up as a pirate in one of Obama's gags for the White House Correspondent's Dinner. He remained out of the public eye until January 2013, when he was tapped to help write Obama's speech following a mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona. Acclaim for the president's emotional remarks drew questions about the staffer who had a hand in drafting it.

"It's C-O-D-Y K-E-E-N-A-N," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One, according to the Chicago Tribune. "And I'll double-check that, but I'm almost positive."

Keenan emphasizes that any big speech, particularly a State of the Union, is the result of collaboration among a large number of White House employees, including policy advisors, researchers and other writers — and the final edits are always the president's.

"The scariest part is clicking send, you know, when I send it to him," Keenan said.

He doesn't relax until the president actually steps to the podium. "Once he starts delivering it, I'm totally relieved," he said.

But Keenan admits that he dreams of helping Obama write a far different speech before their time at the White House is through.

"Chicago Cubs, World Series champs, coming to the White House, you kidding?" he said. "It's why I'm still here."