Obama press secretary and speechwriter speculate on 2020 presidential nominee, talk future of political landscape


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Josh Earnest and Cody Keenan recalled their time in the Obama administration, while offering advice to the future of the Democratic Party.

Austin Benavides, Reporter

Former Obama White House press secretary Josh Earnest and former speechwriter Cody Keenan (Weinberg ’02) shared their experiences in the White House and mused about the future of the Democratic Party during a panel discussion on Monday.

Earnest is now working for as the chief communications officer for United Airlines, and Keenan is currently working with Barack Obama on his new book and helping him curate his presidential library in Chicago. During the discussion, moderated by Medill Prof. Peter Slevin in McCormick Auditorium, the two covered everything from the midterm elections to speculation about the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.

Slevin opened the discussion — attended by about 150 students and community members — by asking the two if they used to have a “plan B” for inclement weather , alluding to an incident last week whenPresident Donald Trump did not attend a WWI memorial service in France because of rain.

Keenan and Earnest assured the audience they would have attended regardless of weather.

During his time as press secretary, Earnest said Obama never “second guessed” him and the press office. He recounted a particularly intense week in 2016 when Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer, and five officers were killed the next day in Texas — all while the president was in Poland. The press office and Obama balanced empathizing with the nation’s black community while also conveying the importance of police officers’ safety, Earnest said.

“These kinds of events just have a way of intruding even on important items on the presidential agenda, but again, you certainly, being in the White House long enough, develop some instincts about this,” Earnest said. “The overriding instinct is just common human empathy that most people have.”

When the conversation turned to the midterm elections, Slevin referred to a Tweet posted by Keenan following the election. “The more people who vote, the more Congress starts to look like America,” he wrote. Keenan said the midterm election was a big night for the Democrats, as they took back the House, though they were unable to capture the Senate.

When asked who they saw as potential frontrunners for the Democrats in the 2020, the two staffers differed. Earnest proposed Mitchell Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who drew praise after his 2015 speech supporting the removal of Confederate monuments.

“I want Beto (O’Rourke) to run,” Keenan said, referring to the congressman from Texas who challenged Ted Cruz’s Senate seat. The statement was met with cheers from the crowd.

Earnest said the next press secretary after Trump’s presidency will be “the most important press secretary of our generation.” He or she can either continue the Trump administration’s novel approach or return to the norms put in place by the Obama and Bush presidencies, Earnest said.

Medill senior Allyna Mota Melville, who takes Slevin’s course on politics and media, said she is concerned for the White House press corps. She said a new press secretary will need to think about what it means to “hold truth in that position.”

Looking to 2020, Mota Melville said she had heard of both candidates, but she emphasized a need for a unique candidate for the Democrats.

“It’s important to have a woman or person of color on that ticket because that is who the Democratic Party is and that’s who America is,” Mota Meville said. “It’s important not just to default to two white people because that’s not what America is.”

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