The White House announced Monday morning that Boston Marathon bombing survivors Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman are among the guests invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Openly gay professional basketball player Jason Collins, 16-year-old Joey Hudy of “extreme marshmallow cannon” fame, D.C. teacher of the year Kathy Hollowell-Makle and Moore, Okla., fire chief Gary Bird also have been invited.
Last year, the White House’s guests signaled that health care, the economy, social issues and the tragedies of the previous year were among the priorities of Obama’s annual address. The first round of guests this year also balances domestic policy, namely education, with a nod to the traumas of 2013. Additional guests of the first lady, Jill Biden and senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett will be announced over the next two days.
The guests chosen to sit in the box work as an accurate emotional snapshot of the first year of President Obama’s second term as he heads to Congress to lay out his plans for 2014. The photo of Arredondo and Bauman escaping Boylston Street on April 15, 2013 -- the former in a cowboy hat, the latter in a wheelchair with a makeshift belt tourniquet above his missing legs -- is probably the image that comes to mind when most Americans remember that day. Arredondo -- who met Obama soon after the bombings -- remembered the event and summarized his life since in a piece for the Guardian at the end of 2013, saying: “Now, Jeff can walk on prosthetics, and we go to see football together. In fact, we went to Costa Rica with him a couple of weeks ago and spent Thanksgiving with his family this year, too. Celebrating life, you know?”
When Jason Collins, an NBA player who has played for six pro teams, announced that he is gay in the May 6, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated, he became the first openly gay male athlete playing for an elite sports team in the United States. Obama called Collins, currently an unsigned free agent, soon after the article went online, expressing his support and telling Collins that "he was impressed by his courage." The first lady tweeted, “So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We’ve got your back!” The first lady and Collins also headlined a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in May.
When Moore, Okla., was struck by a tornado on May 20, 2013 -- one with peak winds of 210 miles per hour that left 25 people dead -- fire chief Gary Bird was the one orchestrating rescue crews to find survivors through the debris that used to be thousands of buildings. Original death tolls of the storm were far higher than the final tallies, partly due to the diligence of Bird and his crew. However, the storm was still the deadliest since the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., that left 158 dead.
Kathy Hollowell-Makle has taught in the District for 15 years, starting in 1998 as a Teach for America corps member. She currently teaches at Abram Simon Elementary in Southeast, where she was recently named the teacher of the year in the public school system. By the end of 2013, 90 percent of her students tested at proficient or advanced early literacy levels. In last year’s State of the Union, Obama proposed a $75 billion plan to boost early education spending, a plan that never made it through the difficult budget negotiations that defined Congress in much of 2013. It seems likely that Obama will revisit this policy area tomorrow, especially since Hollowell-Makle isn’t the only guest that brings education to mind.
Joey Hudy -- who attended the White House Science Fair two years ago and memorably let the president test his marshmallow cannon -- is now Intel’s youngest intern and a perfect person for the president to point to if he decides to bring up the benefits of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, which he has mentioned in previous State of the Unions and has proposed funding increases for in his 2014 budget plan.