President Joe Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address on Tuesday.
The speech will come at a critical time for his presidency as he deals with nominating a new Supreme Court justice, managing a shaky economy and trying to prevent further Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Tuesday is also the Texas primary, the first election of the 2022 midterm campaign. The speech will inevitably be tied to this fall’s elections as Democrats try to maintain control of Congress despite Biden’s low approval numbers.
The stakes are high and the State of the Union speech is one of a president’s best opportunities to clarify their vision, tout achievements and boost both the nation’s morale and their own approval ratings.
Presidents and first ladies typically invite about two dozen guests to sit in the House gallery to promote their priorities and values. State of the Union guests help put a human face on a president’s message for both policymakers and viewers at home.
Presidents often mention some guests by name in their State of the Union speech to highlight policy goals or achievements. Acknowledging guests like this is a tradition that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s 1982 address, according to the University of California-Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.
Presidents have traditionally acknowledged some of their State of the Union guests during their speeches ever since. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama would usually call on a handful of guests by name — if they mentioned them at all.
But if a shout-out from Bush or Obama was the exception, with Donald Trump, it was almost always the rule. Trump invited fewer guests than both presidents overall, but he called on nearly every guest by name.
Trump didn’t just acknowledge his guests to prove a point, he used them to create made-for-reality-TV moments as well; During his 2020 address, he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to radio personality Rush Limbaugh.
On the same night, Trump surprised Amy Williams and her two young children by reuniting them with their husband and father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams, after his fourth deployment in the Middle East.
Active and veteran members of the military and their families have been a staple of every recent president’s State of the Union guest list, according to a CNN review of White House archives.
Most of the 44 active or veteran service members that former President George W. Bush invited were involved with the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. His administration initiated both wars and they were a critical focus of his presidency. In 2005, for instance, Bush both invited and acknowledged Bill and Janet Norwood, the parents of Marine Sgt. Byron Norwood, who was killed during the assault on Fallujah in Iraq the previous year.
Military or veteran guests represented nearly one-third of all the guests former President Donald Trump invited over the course of his three SOTU addresses.
The White House biographies written for each guest suggest Trump was interested in promoting an agenda of American exceptionalism and not necessarily connected to current events. He was the only president of Biden’s three predecessors to include World War II veterans, for example, and invited more WWII veterans than he did active or veteran members of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. One guest at his 2019 speech, Army Staff Sgt. Irving Locker, landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, fought through five major battles and helped liberate a concentration camp.
More than a fifth of Obama’s guests were invited to help illustrate economic issues and helped him highlight the measures his administration took to lift the country out of the Great Recession. In 2014, Obama invited Andra Rush, who trained employees for her Detroit business through the Obama administration’s American Jobs Center network.
Obama prioritized inviting guests from the world of science and STEM education. He invited 14 guests from scientific backgrounds — by far the most of Biden’s three predecessors. In 2014, he invited Joey Hudy, a 14-year-old self-described “maker” who developed an “extreme marshmallow cannon.”
Obama also invited two winners of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. One of those guests was then-16-year-old Jack Andraka in 2013, who won for developing a new method of detecting pancreatic cancer.
Bush featured guests from the world of arts and culture. In 2003, he invited David McCullough, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “John Adams.” In 2008, one of his guests was Irvin Mayfield, a legendary jazz trumpeter and appointed cultural ambassador of New Orleans.