First lady Jill Biden takes over State of the Union address with 20 guests invited to join her for speech

 March 8, 2024

President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address to Congress Thursday evening, but much of the attention was diverted to the guests of honor who were invited to sit with first lady Jill Biden for the speech, according to a New York Times report.

In all, Jill Biden invited 20 guests to sit with her in the first lady's box, with each of them representing a key constituency in the president's voter base or being emblematic of a particular accomplishment or agenda item for the Democratic president.

The guests ranged from abortion rights advocates to union workers, with some celebrities, gun control activists, military-related invitees, and politicians in the middle -- all of whom provided Biden and his campaign with an opportunity to highlight his achievements and goals amid his re-election bid.

Jill Biden's SOTU guest list

The White House announced on Thursday the State of the Union guest list for the first lady, and acknowledged, "Each of these individuals were invited by the White House because they personify issues or themes to be addressed by the President in his speech, or they embody the Biden-Harris Administration’s policies at work for the American people."

Those 20 guests included Latorya Beasley, an Alabama resident whose plans for in vitro fertilization (IVF) were derailed by that state's Supreme Court ruling, and Kate Cox, a Texas woman forced to travel out of state to obtain an abortion due to the state's strict pro-life laws. It also included former TV journalist Maria Shriver, who is now a women's health advocate.

The first lady was also joined by Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, and union members like Illinois UAW member Dawn Simms, Pennsylvania carpenter Samantha Ervin-Upsher, who benefited from an Investing in America Workforce Hub training program, and Wisconsin plumber Rashawn Spivey, whose business is focused on replacing old lead pipes with federal funding.

In a nod to the U.S. military, the first lady featured Tiffany Zoeller, a North Carolina Army spouse who benefited from a job training program, U.S. Navy Commander Shelby Nikitin from Massachusetts, who received a Bronze Star for commanding a ship that fought against Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, whose nation was just accepted into the NATO alliance.

The guest list also included Kris Blackley, a South Carolina nurse conducting cancer research; Jazmin Cazares of Uvalde, Texas, who became a gun control activist after her sister was killed in a school shooting; Bettie Mae Fikes, a civil rights activist from Selma, Alabama; Steven Hadfield of North Carolina, a cancer patient and diabetic whose benefited from Medicare price negotiations on prescription drug costs; and Mayor Garnett Johnson of Augusta, Georgia, whose city hosts a Workforce Hub training program.

The list was rounded out by Keenan Jones, a Minnesota public school teacher whose outstanding student loan debt was forgiven; Natalie King, a Michigan business owner who manufactures electric vehicle chargers; Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of Arizona, who leads a Native American reservation; Justin Phillips of Indiana, who helps drug overdose victims; and Kameryn Pupunu, a police officer from Maui, Hawaii, who helped save lives during last year's devastating wildfires.

Compared with the guest lists for Michelle Obama and Melania Trump

It may seem like 20 State of the Union guests for the first lady is a lot, and it is unclear how much in taxpayer funds was spent to ensure all could attend -- unless they were forced to cover their own lodging and transportation costs -- but that number of guests appears to be par for the course, at least for Democratic first ladies.

Vox reported in January 2016 that then-first lady Michelle Obama invited a total of 23 guests -- plus one chair kept empty to represent victims of gun violence -- to her husband's final State of the Union address.

Those guests were all connected to then-President Barack Obama in some manner, typically by benefiting from a particular policy or emblematic of an issue he hoped to still address.

In comparison, Politico reported in February 2020 that then-first lady Melania Trump invited just 11 guests to join her for her husband's final State of the Union address.

To be sure, those guests also represented key parts of then-President Donald Trump's achievements and continuing agenda -- that is the prevailing bipartisan tradition for this particular event going back decades -- but were not so numerous as to overshadow the president himself or fill the bulk of his speech with individual call outs for recognition.

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