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State Of The Union Invitation List: Who Makes The Cut

First lady Michelle Obama and invited guests in her box applaud during President Obama's State of the Union address in Washington, Jan. 25, 2011.
Charles Dharapak
First lady Michelle Obama and invited guests in her box applaud during President Obama's State of the Union address in Washington, Jan. 25, 2011.

Just like the issues and themes that color the annual State of the Union speech, the list of White House invitees is intended to send a message about what an administration cares about and prioritizes.

The State of the Union guests, after all, are announced beforehand with biographies attached. And the typically staggered announcement of names allows the media to chew them over for several news cycles.

To date, the Obama administration has selected a potpourri of exceptional students, inspiring members of the military, everyday heroes, and regular folks who exemplify the merit of programs favored by the president.

This year is no exception. The White House Monday released the names and bios of six of the two dozen or so guests expected to join first lady Michelle Obama Tuesday evening to watch her husband deliver his fifth State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. More names are expected to come.

The guests, so far, are:

  • Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman of Boston, both of whom survived the Boston Marathon bombing and were captured in an iconic photograph showing a cowboy-hatted Arredondo rushing Bauman to safety.
  • Gary Bird, the Moore, Okla., fire chief instrumental in search and rescue efforts after a deadly tornado hit his town
  • Jason Collins, a professional basketball player who became the first male active player in a major professional team sport to announce he is gay
  • Joey Hudy, the Arizona teenage creator of the "extreme marshmallow cannon" that was featured at the White House Science Fair and tested by Obama
  • Kathy Hollowell-Makle, the District of Columbia public school's teacher of the year last year
  • The limited list is a nod to Obama's efforts on behalf of gay Americans and the focus that he's given in every State of the Union to science and technology education, teachers, and public servants. As in past years, with the inclusion of Bauman and Arredondo, the invitations recognize those involved in a significant news event.

    The guest lists of Obama's previous State of the Union addresses — from his first in 2009, coming off his first election (though technically not a State of the Union), to his most recent in 2013, just after his re-election — provide time capsules of sorts. They are public snapshots of the president's mood, his political and legislative aims, and recent news, both tragic and inspiring.


    Fresh off his historic election as the nation's first African-American president, Obama invited Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in an employment discrimination case whose name is attached to the first piece of legislation signed by the new president. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act expanded the time frame in which wage discrimination complaints can be filed.

    His other guests offered a glimpse of the president's outreach to his new city as well as other issues of prominence — students from D.C. schools; the first lady's attention to military families, service members, and a nod to green energy (a solar company founder). One unfortunate development since that first State of the Union: One of the "hero" guests, Philadelphia police officer Richard DeCoatsworth, shot in the face in the line of duty, went from a seat next to Michelle Obama to being arrested last year on charges he drugged and raped two women at gunpoint.


    The Obamas' 2010 guest list steered clear of high-profile names. Those picked were intended to show the benefits of the Recovery Act (a Phoenix business that makes electric vehicle battery charging infrastructure was one), as well as a "green economy" activist from Kansas City.

    The White House showed early support for gay couples, hosting an Indianapolis business owner planning with his partner to adopt, and with another guest highlighted one of the president's modest legislative successes — legislation banning credit card companies from unfairly raising interest rates on existing businesses.


    Just weeks before the State of the Union, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured when she was shot by an assailant at a campaign event near Tucson; six others were killed and 13 were injured.

    It was an emotional night on Capitol Hill; among the Obamas' guests were Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly; the battlefield-trained former military doctor who oversaw Giffords' treatment; and the parents of Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old killed in the attack.

    Other guests included business people whose companies benefited from Recovery Act loans; the founder of a drilling company business whose product helped save 37 miners trapped in Chile; and regular citizens who had benefited from provisions in the Affordable Health Care Act that prevented denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions.


    The "celebrity" guest two years ago was Warren Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, made famous by her billionaire boss, who said he paid a lower tax rate (17.4 percent) than his longtime employee (35.8 percent).

    Her presence underscored the heated debate over whether wealthier Americans should pay higher rates than middle-income earners, a proposal Obama had referred to as the "Buffett rule."

    Also joining Michelle Obama were San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising Hispanic star; home refinance beneficiaries; more solar and high-tech business people; as well as a cancer survivor who would have lost insurance coverage without Affordable Care Act provisions rolled out early.


    Weeks after a rampaging gunman killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at the school, was a guest of the first lady. Roid helped save 15 of her first-grade students by hiding them in a bathroom.

    While honoring the families and staff of Sandy Hook, the White House also hosted the parents of a Chicago girl murdered a month after performing with her school in Obama's inaugural events; the police officer first on the scene at the deadly Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creed, Wis.; Apple's CEO; a nurse who worked to save at-risk infants during Hurricane Sandy; a Hispanic "DREAMer" (a young person brought to the U.S. as a child by parents who came here illegally, but who is seeking an education and path to citizenship); and 102-year-old "Granny," who waited in a long voter line to cast her ballot for Obama, were also guests.

    This year's guest list is expected to reflect much of the same Obama tradition of reflecting the news of the times — hopeful and tragic — as well as the themes of the president's own agenda, big and small, going into his sixth year in the Oval Office.

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    Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.