President Obama’s last State of the Union is on Tuesday night, and the whole nation is invited to listen to him talk to Congress one last time. He’ll get a little help running victory laps and laying out the last things on his to-do list with some silent help from a few people in the audience, sitting up next to First Lady Michelle Obama. If Keegan-Michael Key gets to be Obama’s anger translator, the people invited to the State of the Union every year by the White House get a chance to stand in for a few of his other emotions and priorities, Inside Out–style.
Here’s a quick list of the people who will be sitting with the First Lady, with a little help from the local newspapers that are very excited that someone from home gets to take part in an event that will be seen by millions.
There are a lot of guests — 23! — and the Obamas seem to be celebrating the last State of the Union by inviting enough people to throw a party in the House chambers.
She’s otherwise known as the South Carolina woman who came up with the “Fired up! Ready to go!” cheer that defined much of Obama’s first presidential bid. She later told ABC News, “I just did what I normally do for people I feel good about. I’m just honored because it’s not every day that you can say just five little words and someone will use them [in a way] that makes a difference for everyone in the U.S.”
He’s better known as one of the Americans who helped foil the train attack in Paris this summer. A few months after stopping a potential terrorist attack, he was stabbed in Sacramento, and the wounds he suffered were very bad. After everything he went through, the least the White House could do is invite him to a pomp-filled, if mostly boring, speech. “Everything I’m doing is once in a lifetime,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I’m enjoying every second of it. If I’m well known, at least it’s for doing something good.”
He’s the plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, otherwise known as the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage across the country. The president gave Obergefell a call after he won his case, which he put on speakerphone and played on live TV. “I just wanted to say congratulations,” Obama said. “Your leadership on this has changed the country.”
Obergefell’s husband died in 2013, and he wanted to be listed as the surviving spouse on his death certificate, something that was complicated by the fact that same-sex marriage was illegal in Ohio.
An Empty Seat
One seat will be left empty for all those killed by gun violence recently and “no longer have a voice.” A White House official told National Journal last week, “They need the rest of us to speak for them. To tell their stories. To honor their memory. To support the Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the terrible ripple effect of gun violence — survivors who’ve had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life. To remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
Ryan Reyes, whose partner was killed during the San Bernardino shooting, will also be sitting with the First Lady.
This Syrian scientist fled his country after his wife and daughter were killed by a Syrian government missile. He ended up in Troy, Michigan, in December, where he lives with his three daughters and son. The president found out about him after he was featured on Humans of New York, and he left a comment on the Facebook post: “Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.”
Hamo told the Detroit Free Press, “I’m very thankful for President Obama taking me into his consideration. And I have a trust that President Obama is leading this great country.” He added to the Detroit News, “I know the American people are good people. As an educated person, I know how great, how generous people in America are.”
Edward Norton also saw the story about Hamo and started a fund-raising push that eventually raised $450,000 for his family.
He’s the guy who handed Obama something in an elevator that he kept in his pocket for ages. When Obama was campaigning in Texas in February 2008, Smith, a Vietnam vet, handed the candidate a military patch after they kept bumping into each other on the elevator he was operating. Obama still has the patch — and plans to donate it to his presidential library. Smith told the Washington Post, “to be honest, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the American people.”
He’s the governor of Connecticut, a state that passed new gun-control laws shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. Malloy, who signed an executive order last year prohibiting people on the no-fly list from buying guns in Connecticut, attended a ceremony at the White House last week, announcing Obama’s new executive actions on guns. “I want to thank the president and the first lady for this once-in-a-lifetime invitation,” he said, adding, “The president is taking action on this important issue just as we have in Connecticut. It is common sense to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.” Many people do not look upon the similarities between Obama’s and Malloy’s legislative priorities fondly. Republican state senator Michael McLachlan told the Connecticut Post, “They are two peas in a pod.”
He’s the youngest person invited to sit in Michelle Obama’s box. The 12-year-old started a nonprofit to give healthy food to those who might not be able to afford it. His mom is afraid he might fall asleep during the speech since it’s past his bedtime, but he seems pretty excited.
Many of the other guests don’t have a national claim to fame, but they do fit into categories that seem like things Obama is keen to focus on this year.
“For I believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late,” Obama said at the U.N. conference on climate change in Paris last year. “And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our own short-term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe, and the food that they will eat, and the water that they will drink, and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives, then we won’t be too late for them.”
Obama has invited one guest who fits in with his impatience to do something about the environment. Mark Davis, who used to play professional basketball, owns a solar-panel company in Washington, D.C., and has been installing them for free in low-income housing.
There are two college students who will be in the box. Jennifer Bragdon is a community-college student from Austin, Texas, who stands in for Obama’s hope to make community college free for all Americans. Lydia Doza is studying mechanical engineering in Oregon and stands in for the White House’s hope to get more young people excited about STEM fields. She was somewhat shocked when she got a voice-mail and text from the White House during class. “I thought, no one gets texts messages from the White House,” she told The Oregonian. “This can’t be real.”
Satya Nadella, who has been running Microsoft as the company has offered more benefits to workers and flooded a bunch of money into computer-science programs for elementary- and high-school kids, will also be there.
This is one category that gives Obama a rare chance to say that he agrees with Republicans. The Koch brothers and Rand Paul agree with the White House that there are way too many people in prison — and that the government should do something about that. Republican mayor Mark Luttrell from Shelby County, Tennessee, also agrees, and accepted an invitation to the State of the Union despite the fact that his party usually tries to look like attending Obama’s speech is far worse than having to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen while you get your teeth pulled. “What has been interesting to see is the bipartisan support that seems to be building around this issue,” Luttrell told The Commercial Appeal. “I’m very proud to be a part of that coalition.”
Obama will also probably focus on policing, a topic that has been a magnet for controversy after the several police shootings and deaths that happened in the past year. Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole was singled out for taking part in the body-camera pilot program and focusing on community policing — a few years after the Justice Department reprimanded the police department for using excessive force. O’Toole has been police chief since 2014.
People Who Think the Economy Is Great
Obama is probably eager to brag about how the economy has been humming along nicely in recent months, and having a person in the audience who personally thanked you for fixing the economy probably makes that task much easier. Gloria Balenski, whose husband works for General Motors, sent Obama a thank-you note last March. Her husband will get to watch the speech at the White House. She told the Chicago Daily Herald, “there are a lot of people out there, like us, who should be thanking [Obama] and not yelling at him. You hear a lot from the extreme sides, but I bet he doesn’t hear from the middle very often.”
Obama is also hoping to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership all finished up by the end of his presidency — something many Republicans think is a great idea, and many Democrats think is just the worst thing ever. Ronna Rice from Colorado exports a lot of honey abroad — and happens to support the TPP.
The addiction problem in rural communities across the country is pretty horrendously bad, and it seems like Obama is going to reference it tomorrow night, given the presence of Cary Dixon from West Virginia. Obama met Dixon, whose son suffers from drug abuse, at a panel in Charleston, West Virginia, last year. She told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “As a community and as a nation we haven’t known what to do with this disease. Addiction is a disease, people don’t want to become addicted to drugs. These are real people, they’re not bad people, they are sick people.”
Many veterans and people in the military will be in the audience on Tuesday. There’s Spencer Stone and Earl Smith, of course, but also Lisa Jaster, the third woman to graduate from Ranger School; Naveed Shah, a U.S. Army veteran and immigrant; and Oscar Vazquez, a veteran DREAMer. This list of résumés gives Obama the opportunity to talk about a whole number of issues that Republicans aren’t too interested in talking about, while cloaking it in something that Republicans do love to talk about.
And (Obviously) Someone Who Likes Obamacare
As the part of Obama’s legacy that faces pushback most frequently, it seems likely that the president will be keen to list all the reasons he thinks it’s working tonight (something that will probably send Democrats clapping and leave Republicans looking glum with their butts glued to their seats). And during that section of his speech, he’ll probably point to Cedric Rowland, an Affordable Care Act navigator from Chicago.
Given that Obama will likely give all these people a shout-out during his address, it’s not clear how he’ll have enough time to talk about anything else.