State of the Union: What Obama guest list says about coming speech

Guests of President Obama and Congress members, from a 4 year-old Wisconsinite to a Vietnam War veteran, highlight political priorities heading into Obama's final year in office. 

Carlos Osorio/AP
Syrian refugee Refaai Hamo speaks with the media on December 17, after arriving in Romulus, Mich. The scientist, whose family story generated intense interest from fans of Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton, including an encouraging message from President Obama, will be a guest at the 2016 State of the Union Address.

Syrian refugees, military heroes, and the plaintiff whose case led to recognition of same-sex marriage throughout the United States will join members of Congress this evening when President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address. The guest list hints at key points to come in the president's speech as he tries to convince Americans that "we've brought America back," in the words of Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. 

Since 1982, when then-President Ronald Reagan held up Lenny Skutnik as an example of "the spirit of American heroism," presidents have invited guests to join the first lady, using their stories to put a face to policy. Mr. Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office employee, had leapt into the Potomac River in freezing weather to save survivors of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash, which killed 78 on board and 4 bystanders.

Everyday heroes and decorated veterans make regular appearances on presidential guest lists, and this year is no exception. Air Force Staff Sgt. Spencer Stone, who thwarted a terror attack aboard a French train during his vacation in August, said that joining first lady Michelle Obama's guest box will be the high point of the praise he and his two friends have won, beating his meeting with LA Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.

But other guests will emphasize more specific themes, underlining Mr. Obama's claimed victories, from lowered unemployment rates to criminal justice reform, as well as the work that lays ahead. White House advisers say that the president has told them, "Don't take the foot off the gas pedal" in their final year, particularly on gun control.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), who fought to tighten gun laws after the Newtown massacre killed 20 schoolchildren and 6 adult staff, will attend, as will Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was killed in the 2012 shooting. Mr. Barden, the founder of anti-gun violence group Sandy Hook Promise, is a guest of Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (D).

In honor of victims of gun violence, a priority for Obama's final year in office, one seat will be left empty.

Other guests have been selected to provide faces to the debate over US acceptance of Syrian refugees, an issue that has become highly politicized in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris and the December massacre in San Bernardino, California.

Fans of the online photography blog Humans of New York will recognize Refaai Hamo, a Syrian scientist diagnosed with cancer who fled to Turkey after his wife and daughter were killed by missiles.

Massachusetts Sen. Seth Moulton (D) has also invited a Syrian refugee as his guest: 9 year old Ahmad Alkhalaf, who is recovering at the Boston Children's Hospital after losing his arms in a bombing. His parents, who lost three of their children in the same attack, remain in Turkey. 

But the president faces an uphill battle with his plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year: more than half of all US states have attempted to block them, particularly in the wake of IS-inspired attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

Ryan Reyes, whose partner Daniel Kaufman was killed in the California shooting rampage, will be another of Obama's 23 guests. "I speak for both Daniel and myself when I say that this attack should not encourage people to treat Muslims any differently than they would anyone else," Mr. Reyes said after the attacks.

Numerous guests of the president and Congress members work in criminal justice, law enforcement, and drug treatment, major foci as the White House tries to address overcrowded prisons and allegations of racial discrimination in the justice system. Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole, a proponent of community policing and body cameras, will attend, as will activists speaking up about opioid addiction across the country, particularly in Appalachia and the Northeast.

Others' stories emphasize the Administration's accomplishments. Guests from small business owners to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shine a light on economic growth, and Mrs. Obama will be seated near Jim Obergefell, of Cincinnati. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor in Obergefell v. Hodges last year, extending the right to same-sex marriage throughout the country.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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