WASHINGTON — The new president's first address to Congress loomed and Barack Obama had convened a few trusted advisers in the Oval Office.
Seated in a chair beside the fireplace, Obama turned his attention to a 27-year-old with close-cropped hair among the aides perched on the office couch. His instructions were familiar.
"You and I always tell a story pretty well. I still want to make sure we do that here," Obama said, according to one participant.
Behind a president defined more by his oratory than any political figure in a generation is chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, whose work with Obama began soon after the Illinois senator arrived in Washington four years ago and who knows the president's ideas and rhythms so well that Obama has called him a mind-reader.
Throughout the grueling, nearly two-year-long presidential campaign, Favreau lived a life of constant deadlines and caffeine-fueled nights, carrying Obama's 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," and committing to memory the 2004 Democratic convention speech that introduced Obama to the country. He now works one floor below the president, in a basement office in the West Wing.
Favreau, or "Favs" to his friends and co-workers, is the second-youngest person ever to work as chief White House speechwriter. Only James Fallows was younger—by a mere two months—when he started as Jimmy Carter's top speechwriter.
Though Favreau mostly works out of the limelight, he had an unwelcome brush with celebrity in December after a Facebook photo surfaced of him at a party groping a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton—a bit of clowning for which he quickly apologized.
He has played a role in such pivotal moments as Obama's speech on race, a New Hampshire primary concession speech that became a rallying point for the campaign, the stadium-rally acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Denver and Obama's widely hailed election-night victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park.
Obama's recent address to the joint session of Congress came together after four drafts circulated back and forth, each one returned to Favreau covered with handwritten editing from the president.
What emerged was a story about how the country had fallen into economic crisis and how the new president envisioned climbing out of it, a narrative that made the case for an ambitious political agenda by connecting it to the struggles and anxieties of ordinary Americans. The impact was immediate, boosting the president in opinion polls and bolstering support for his program.
Obama, the rare individual who wrote an autobiography in his early 30s, has managed a political career that has taken full advantage of story lines, connecting his own narrative as the child of a mixed-race couple to the broader American story of expanding freedom and opportunity.
Storytelling is at the core of Obama's public speaking, overriding the modern obsession with the sound bite.
Favreau has explained their joint approach to friends simply: "Tell a story. That's the most important part of every speech, more than any given line. Does it tell a story from beginning to end?"
The White House denied a request for an interview with Favreau. But aides said Obama's speeches often begin with the president dictating his thoughts to Favreau and the speechwriter shaping them into a draft that is then passed back and forth between the two men.
With access to the president among the most valued resources in the White House, the importance Obama places on his oratory is apparent from his schedule. On most days, he meets personally with Favreau or other members of his speechwriting team to go over upcoming remarks.
"I've never worked for a politician who values words as much as the president does," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said. "The speechwriter is an unusually important person in the operation. [Obama's] willingness to entrust his words to others is limited."
Favreau is a trained pianist who rented an electric baby grand piano for his apartment so he could play while taking breaks from work during his first speechwriting job for John Kerry's presidential campaign. The speechwriter has a "musical" sense of language, Axelrod said.
"I call him Mozart because he's just this young creative genius," Axelrod said. Favreau and Obama alike "think in terms of the cadence of the words," Axelrod added. "Not just the meaning of the words but the cadence of the words, how they work together, how they sound together."
Despite his youth, Favreau comes to the White House with an unusually long relationship with the president for a speechwriter, allowing him to draw upon deep experience with Obama's habits of thought and speech. In less hectic days when Obama was a freshman senator, the two would banter over baseball: when the White Sox swept the Red Sox 3-0 in the 2005 American League playoffs, Obama walked over to the Massachusetts native's desk with a broom.
Only a few presidents had as long an association with their chief writers prior to their election, most notably John Kennedy and Ted Sorensen, a partnership that produced some of the most memorable modern political rhetoric, said Robert Schlesinger, author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters."
Favreau's own public speaking career began at age 2, when, according to his mother, Lillian, he was able to recite " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" from beginning to end—with only a little prompting along the way. She kept a tape for posterity.
His best friend since middle school, Josh Porter, dates Favreau's interest in politics to a high school leadership seminar the two attended over several days in Washington. A high point was the sudden appearance of then- President Bill Clinton's motorcade while the two were standing near the Capitol.
"He just loved D.C.," Porter said. "He just loved the idea of how much power there is there."
At College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass., Favreau founded a volunteer project to provide support to welfare recipients, spent a semester in Washington as an intern for Kerry and delivered the valedictory address.
After starting on Kerry's presidential campaign as a press assistant whose responsibilities included handling news clippings, he landed a job on the speechwriting staff in a moment of upheaval, based on the strength of his college valedictory address. Future Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who was on Kerry's staff, later set up a lunch meeting between Obama and Favreau shortly after the Illinois senator arrived in Washington.
Disappointed and exhausted after Kerry's loss, Favreau was thinking about going to law school or trying his hand at screenwriting, said several associates.
"I remember him calling me after the lunch," Porter said. "He said, 'I'm staying here. This guy's the real deal.' "