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Former presidential speechwriter shares behind-the-scenes look at State of the Union prep

Terry Szuplat, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, spoke with ABC News' Linsey Davis Thursday just before President Joe Biden's State of the Union address, about his experiences helping craft the speech as part of the Obama White House.

Szuplat, who will soon release a new book, "Say It Well," which chronicles his writing process, talked about what happens behind-the-scenes to prepare the annual address.

PHOTO: Former presidential speechwriter Terry Szuplat speaks to ABC News' Linsey Davis on ABC News on March 7, 2024. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Former presidential speechwriter Terry Szuplat speaks to ABC News' Linsey Davis on ABC News on March 7, 2024. (ABC News)

ABC NEWS LIVE: What's the writing and preparation process look like?

TERRY SZUPLAT: Sure. Well, thanks for having me. It goes on for months. Obviously, today we're all focused on what will happen tonight, but the speechwriters and the president have been working on this for weeks and months. In the Obama administration, often the writing and researching of the State of the Union would begin many months before, and it really becomes an exercise in everyone in the government working very hard to get their particular initiative, their particular proposal, in the State of the Union, because they do recognize it is the biggest platform that they'll have all year.

So it's a tremendous effort by the speechwriters and the president to sort of sift through all that and make sure that the president's telling a coherent and compelling story that will resonate with the American people.

MORE: 'I believe in America': Fired-up Biden uses State of the Union to skewer GOP, his 'predecessor'

ABC NEWS LIVE: We've of course seen those scenes of the president and his staff scribbling furiously, changing last-minute words in the speech, in TV and film. Is that accurate? Are any finishing touches being written right at this second?

SZUPLAT: I would imagine so. I mean, the editing and the writing doesn't stop until the president starts speaking. So, sometimes you have a situation where the edits are even being made in the in "the beast," in the limousine, on the way up, or backstage. So until the president speaks, you know, anything can be changed.

ABC NEWS LIVE: When people have challenged President Biden on his age, he has said, "watch me." A lot of people will be watching tonight, perhaps the biggest audience that he'll get in this election year. Does that put extra pressure on the preparation of this State of the Union?

SZUPLAT: Well, I think every president goes into a State of the Union knowing that it's one of the biggest platforms that they have for the entire year. And I think the American people expect every president to show strength, confidence, vigor, [and] a compelling vision for the future. And that always comes down to two big things: what the president says and how the president says it. And that'll be true this year. Everyone will be watching not only what President Biden says, but how he says it, and his delivery.

And, you know, he shows that he's able to give a strong, fiery speech. He does it all the time. You know, most Americans don't see every presidential speech that's given. But he can give a strong, fiery speech, and I suspect he'll do that tonight.

MORE: Biden confronts Trump and age questions in speech-turned-rally State of the Union address: ANALYSIS

ABC NEWS LIVE: In addition to those questions about the president's age, there are also concerns about his mental fitness. What does the president have to do tonight in order to quiet those fears among members of his own party, in some cases, that that he is fit for the job?

SZUPLAT: Well, I think a strong performance, a strong, strong delivery, strong performance. And again, I think one, it's fair to ask those questions, but the American people over the coming year are going to have to make a choice between two candidates. And so I suspect that that one of the things you'll start to hear tonight is President Biden starting to frame this election as a choice, we now know, between President Biden and former President Trump. That's the choice American people have to make. And on questions of empathy and temperament, the American people, according to polls, much prefer President Biden over the temperament of President Trump. It's been three years. According to the polls, sort of the memories have faded a little bit of how chaotic and cruel those years were, under President Trump.

And I think, over the coming year, you'll start to see more reminders of that, and that starts tonight. The president will position himself as a leader who demonstrates empathy and compassion, in stark contrast to the person he's running against.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber in Washington, Mar. 7, 2024. (Shawn Thew/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber in Washington, Mar. 7, 2024. (Shawn Thew/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

ABC NEWS LIVE: How much is it the president who decides, "Look, these are the this is the outline. These are the major points I want to hit," or is it the speechwriter coming to him? Is it just kind of a marriage between the two?

SZUPLAT: Well, we often talk about it as a mind meld. And really, it's the speechwriter's job to understand how a president speaks, of course, but even more importantly, how the president thinks, how the president approaches issues. And President Biden has a terrific speechwriting team led by Vinay Reddy, who has been with him for many, many years, and very much the speechwriters are taking their cues from the president.

Now, we always like to remind people, no one elected the speechwriter to do anything. We're there at the invitation of the president. We're there to assist the president. We're there to help the president give the best speech that that president can give. So it's very much the president, in the driver's seat.

Former presidential speechwriter shares behind-the-scenes look at State of the Union prep originally appeared on abcnews.go.com