The everyday Americans invited to accompany the first lady as she watches her husband address Congress and the nation are essentially given roles by the White House. They are the human faces of the messages the president delivers, whether about the ingenuity of small business or the plight of returning troops.
This year, the president will focus on the economy and discuss issues such as gun control and immigration. A White House official said that victims of gun violence will be seated with the first lady, as will members of the middle class who would benefit from policy proposals that Obama will unveil, military families, and people working on immigration issues.
The speech will probably run an hour or so, and the next day, most guests will find themselves, Cinderella-like, back at their jobs and in schools and homes across the country.
Previous guests have found that the effects of the evening linger — in positive and sometimes tough or unexpected ways.
Attending the 2010 speech was a “game-changer” for Trevor Yager. The founder of TrendyMinds, an Indianapolis-based advertising and public relations firm, Yager was invited, he says, to represent gay business owners thriving in a tough economy.
The attention he received — the local TV interviews, the national stories — caused a rift with a business partner. Soon after his return from Washington, the partnership dissolved, he said.
“There were jealousy issues,” Yager said. “When you have something like this come along, you do see people’s true colors.”
There were major benefits, too. He credits the exposure from attending the speech with the growth in his business. TrendyMinds has grown from six or seven employees to 29. “All the coverage and attention helped attract clients and opened doors for us,” he said.
For Julia Frost, being a guest in 2010 complicated an already difficult relationship with her Republican father. The two are estranged, and although politics isn’t their only source of conflict, she says it contributes to the rift.
Growing up in a family of conservatives, Frost — who attended the speech as a veteran, a community college student and the wife of an active-duty Marine — says she’d always considered herself to be a Republican. But her visit to Washington made her question that.
She heard things from the president that she liked, about college and health care, and she was impressed by Obama’s demeanor.
“For a long time, I had been blindly following my family, but I saw that there was sense on both sides,” said Frost, who does not label herself a Democrat.
Another result of that night? She has a famous pen pal. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Biden, regularly corresponds with Frost. The women were seated together for the speech.