What the Obamas' guests over the years tell us about the state of our union.

Meet some of the people who've attended the State of the Union as guests.

When it comes to the State of the Union, the first lady has the best seat in the house.

You'll find Michelle Obama enjoying tonight's speech from a balcony to the president's left. It's the same place she has watched each of the president's other six State of the Union addresses (2009's address wasn't technically a State of the Union).


First lady Michelle Obama waves before President Obama's State of the Union speech at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2015. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

As has been tradition for nearly 30 years, she'll be joined by some special guests.

It's tradition that the president and first lady invite special guests to the State of the Union, and this year is no different. This year's group, seated around Michelle Obama, includes small-business owners, veterans, college students, state and local politicians, activists, a CEO, a police chief, and a Syrian refugee.

Past presidents have invited similarly diverse subsections of the country to the address, ranging from unsung heroes to individuals who simply represent a common struggle. In 2002, President George W. Bush invited the flight attendants who thwarted the "shoe bomb" attack; in 2000, President Bill Clinton invited baseball legend Hank Aaron.

President Obama blows a kiss to the first lady before delivering his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, 2013. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

No spot is as coveted as the one directly next to the first lady. Traditionally, it's been reserved for some very special guests.

During President Obama's administration, the seat has been filled by loved ones of shooting victims, first responders, a veteran, and others. And as the president makes his strongest push for gun control yet, 2016's won't be any different, with an empty chair left to represent all the victims of gun violence.

Let's take a look back at some of Michelle Obama's past guests and the causes they represented:

2015: Michelle Obama spends time with Rebekah Erler, an embodiment of economic resilience.

At the time of the State of the Union, Rebekah Erler was a 36-year-old accountant, wife, and mother of two boys. Her story was powerful largely because of how unremarkable and relatable it was.

Erler and her husband were hit hard by the Great Recession. Her husband's construction business failed, and the two of them bounced from job to job thereafter, making their way from Seattle to Minneapolis.

After attending her local community college, Erler found accounting work, and together, she and her husband bought their first home. Still, the two found themselves buried under a mountain of bills and expenses. Her invite represented all the hard-working American families who still barely scrape by, stretched thin.

First lady Michelle Obama and Rebekah Erler during the 2015 State of the Union address. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

2014: Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg symbolizes the need for an efficient VA.

The president closed his speech with an anecdote about Sgt. Remsburg, a 10-deployment veteran who was nearly killed when a roadside bomb went off in Afghanistan, leaving shrapnel in his brain. His recovery was long and hard, but after emerging from a coma, Remsburg made a near-full recovery.

"Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy," said President Obama. "Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen."

Michelle Obama and Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg before the State of the Union on Jan. 28, 2014. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

2013: Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton knows true loss.

On Jan. 29, 2013, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on Chicago's South Side. Just two weeks after the King College Prep honor student's death, President Obama was to deliver the annual State of the Union. Hadiya's parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton, attended the speech, sitting next to the first lady.

President Obama referenced the Pendletons while calling on Congress to vote on common-sense gun measures.

"Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence," said the president. "They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote. They deserve a simple vote."

Michelle Obama and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton during the State of the Union on Feb. 13, 2013. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

2012: Astronaut Mark Kelly takes a stand against gun violence.

Best-selling author, astronaut, and retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly joined Michelle Obama for the 2012 State of the Union. His wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, survived a January 2011 assassination attempt. Ever since, Kelly and Giffords have advocated on behalf of gun control.

Mark Kelly with Michelle Obama before President Obama's address on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images.

2011: John and Roxanna Green, whose daughter was killed just days earlier in the assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords' life.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting, President Obama invited John and Roxanna Green to be guests at the State of the Union.

Their daughter, Christina-Taylor, was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and her life was cut tragically short in the attack.


Michelle Obama applauds during the president's State of the Union on Jan. 25, 2011. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

2010: Fort Hood first responders demonstrate bravery in the face of terror.

Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley were two first responders at the Nov. 5, 2009, attack at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 dead and more than 30 injured. Their fearlessness earned them a spot on the guest list to the annual address.


Police officers Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley of Killeen, Texas, join Michelle Obama before President Obama's first State of the Union on Jan. 27, 2010. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

There's certainly a trend here: gun violence.

The families of gun violence victims have been heavily represented during President Obama's terms in office, and tonight, with an empty chair, is no different.

In a room filled with some of the most powerful people on Earth, it's good to see everyday people get recognition.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

More
via Twitter / Soraya

There is a strange right-wing logic that suggests when minorities fight for equal rights it's somehow a threat to the rights already held by those in the majority or who hold power.

Like when the Black Lives Matter movement started, many on the right claimed that fighting for black people to be treated equally somehow meant that other people's lives were not as valuable, leading to the short-lived All Lives Matter movement.

This same "oppressed majority" logic is behind the new Straight Pride movement which made headlines in August after its march through the streets of Boston.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

For most of us, the hypothetical question of whether we would stick with a boyfriend or girlfriend through the trials of cancer and the treatments is just that – a hypothetical question. We would like to think we would do the right thing, but when Max Allegretti got the chance to put his money where mouth is, he didn't hesitate for a second.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
via bfmamatalk / facebook

Where did we go wrong as a society to make women feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public?

No one should feel they have the right to tell a woman when, where, and how she can breastfeed. The stigma should be placed on those who have the nerve to tell a woman feeding her child to "Cover up" or to ask "Where's your modesty?"

Breasts were made to feed babies. Yes, they also have a sexual function but anyone who has the maturity of a sixth grader knows the difference between a sexual act and feeding a child.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Instagram / JLo

The Me Too movement has shed light on just how many actresses have been placed in positions that make them feel uncomfortable. Abuse of power has been all too commonplace. Some actresses have been coerced into doing something that made them uncomfortable because they felt they couldn't say no to the director. And it's not always as flagrant as Louis C.K. masturbating in front of an up-and-coming comedian, or Harvey Weinstein forcing himself on actresses in hotel rooms.

But it's important to remember that you can always firmly put your foot down and say no. While speaking at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Actress Roundtable, Jennifer Lopez opened up about her experiences with a director who behaved inappropriately. Laura Dern, Awkwafina, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Renee Zellweger were also at the roundtable.

Keep Reading Show less
popular