President Obama may be delivering his fifth State of the Union address tonight to a joint session of Congress – but the list of guest attendees only highlights the deep partisan divide that still exists across the nation.
Both the Republican and Democrats are seeking to score political points through their plus-ones – with both sides of the debate on Obamacare, Benghazi, gay-rights, immigration, the Second Amendment and unemployment benefits all represented in the gallery this evening on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, the naked one-upmanship has seen Louisiana’s new Republican congressman, Vance McAllister invite Willie Robertson, the son of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, who was temporarily suspended from the show after making anti-gay remarks.
This was in contrast to first lady Michelle Obama, who welcomed basketball player Kim Collins – the first active male athlete on a major American sports team to come out as openly gay.
The controversy over Duck Dynasty caused a huge national debate over the First Amendment rights of Robertson, 68, to quote passages from the Bible that can be interpreted as homophobic.
Indeed, Representative McAllister pointedly said in a statement that he looks forward to ‘bringing some diversity to our nation’s Capitol’, with the invitation of Willie Robertson, the CEO of Duck Commander and star of the hit A&E cable show.
In addition, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham threw his hat firmly into the Duck Dynasty ring by gifting his invite to Willie Robertson’s wife, Korie Robertson – and tweeted a smiling picture to prove it.
It has become tradition for the first lady’s guests to include those whose personal stories can help highlight a particular policy or issue for the president.
Twenty-four people have been invited to join Mrs. Obama in her box, including two Boston Marathon bombing survivors, Jeff Bauman and his cowboy hatted rescuer, Carlos Arredondo.
However, more politically pointed guests include, Amanda Shelley, from Gilbert, Arizona. The 37-year-old physicians assistant was uninsured and couldn’t get coverage because of a pre-existing condition until Obama’s health care legislation became law, the White House said.
Two days after receiving coverage, she encountered abdominal pain that eventually required emergency surgery – something that would never have happened before the Affordable Care Act.
Guests: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted this picture of Willie Robertson and his wife Korie Robertson saying he was proud to provide his guest ticket to the Duck Dynasty star’s wife
Guest: In April, the 35-year-old Collins became the first active male athlete on a major American sports team to come out as openly gay
Countering this, Republican leaders have urged their members to host people for whom Obama’s signature national health care law is a burden.
House Speaker John Bohner’s guests are business owners from his Ohio district. They include David Lippert, president of Hamilton Caster & Manufacturing Company in Hamilton, Ohio, who complains ‘Obamacare’ is limiting his efforts to expand his business.
Backing up the president and his wife is Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who is hosting small business owner Martin West, whose wife Melinda was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
In December, West signed his family up for health insurance under the new law and ‘now have the peace of mind of knowing they cannot be dropped from their health insurance due to a pre-existing condition,’
Out of the ashes: Carlos Arredondo (in the white cowboy hat) helped save Jeff Bauman after he lost both legs in the explosion and now they will both be guests of Mrs Obama at the State of the Union address on Tuesday
Moving past it: The two men, seen here at a September 2013 football game, have become close friends
Keen to keep the Benghazi controversy rumbling on, Oklahoma Republican Congressman, Jim Bridenstine, is hosting Charles Woods, father of Ty Woods, a Navy SEAL killed in the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Bridenstine said in a statement ‘I am honored to host the father of a true hero.’
The Sept. 11, 2012 attack and the Obama administration’s response to it is a politically charged subject ahead of the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential election.
The first lady always brings a group of apolitical Americans to the annual speech with her to highlight their service and achievements throughout the year.
Some will be recognized by many and this year one of those men will be Carlos Arredondo, who was wearing a white cowboy hat as he rushed a stranger- later identified as Jeff Bauman- to get medical treatment after he lost both legs in the blast.
The iconic picture of Mr Arrendondo rushing Bauman to first responders became a hopeful symbol of the devastating attack.
The White House said that the two men have become close friends.
Another guest will be Cary Bird, the fire chief in Moore Oklahoma.
He led the rescue response to the tornado that hit the town and killed 25 people.
Honoring Americans: Mrs Obama is surrounded by people that the administration wants to highlight as heroes and leaders and she is seated with them at the annual State of the Union address (seen here in 2013)
‘Fire Chief Gary Bird represents all of those who rallied together to help the community of Moore, Oklahoma- firefighters, police officers, teachers, neighbors- in its greatest time of need,’ the White House said in a statement announcing Mrs Obama’s guests.
The best-known guest that has been announced so far is Jason Collins, the NBA player who announced that he is gay which made him the first openly gay athlete in the league.
Mrs Obama and the White House put out statements immediately praising Collins when he made his announcement in April, as did former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea, who has been friends with Collins since they attended Stanford together.
Other guests include, Peter Mouskondis, president and CEO of Nicholas & Company, Inc., a third-generation, family-owned and operated food service distribution company, with roughly 500 employees.
The White House says the company’s emphasis on work-life balance and benefits, including maternity, paternity and bereavement leave, have contributed to worker productivity and company growth.
Another two American hero is Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg who has met with Obama three times since a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on his 10th deployment, left him in a coma for three months, partially paralyzed and brain-damaged.
Young scientist: Joey Hudy met President Obama when he was 14 at a White House science fair in 2012 (pictured) and impressed him with his ¿extreme marshmallow cannon¿
He will be accompanied by his father, Craig, a retired Air Force Reserve firefighter, and stepmother Annie, are his caretakers.
Other, more politically pointed guests of the first lady include, John Soranno, the CEO of Punch Pizza, which has eight locations in the state, and co-owner, John Puckett, raised the company-wide minimum wage to $10 an hour.
He will be accompanied by Nick Chute, an employee of Punch Pizza, who the White House says has benefited from his employer’s decision to pay a higher minimum wage.
Immigration is also another political battleground between the Republicans and Democrats.
Sitting with the first lady is Cristian Avila of Phoenix, who along with his two younger brothers, were brought to the U.S. illegally when Avila was 9.
Now 23, he is a so-called Dreamer who has benefited from an Obama policy allowing young people who immigrated illegally with their parents to avoid deportation. Avila recently fasted for 22 days to call for an immigration overhaul.
Also sitting in the gallery will be Mary Barra, the first female CEO of General Motors this month after 33 years with the company. GM also benefited from a federal bailout of the auto industry.