State of the Union gallery guests signal key Obama issues

The guests invited by the White House to join the First Lady during the speech often embody the President's key themes

Barack Obama
State of the Union 2014
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For decades, it has been a standard feature of the State of the Union address for the President to make policy points by naming specific guests invited by the White House to join the First Lady in the House gallery. Those tapped to appear in the First Lady’s box for the 2014 speech are survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, the fire chief from Moore, Okla., which endured a high-powered tornado, NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last year, and the 2013 Teacher of the Year.

In Barack Obama's annual addresses from 2009 onward, he has used the device to focus on Americans who exemplify the principles of hard work and innovation. From Alan Aleman and children of undocumented workers in the Southwest to Ty'Sheoma Bethea and students at underfunded schools in the Deep South, we examine key issues through the prism of presidential shout-outs:

2013: Aleman and immigration

Although Alan Aleman was born in Mexico City, Mexico, he went to high school in the U.S. In search of higher learning, Aleman was one of the initial registrants in the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action program for for undocumented young people to receive a proper education.

“I felt the fear vanish,” he said after being admitted to college.“I felt accepted.” Aleman is studying medicine at the College of Southern Nevada, and aspires to serve in the Air Force.

In 2013, Aleman was one of three children of undocumented immigrants who were invited to Congress for the State of the Union. Julieta Garibay and Gabino Sanchez were invited by Democratic legislators.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a memorandum enacted by the White House on June 15, 2012, which enabled U.S. authorities to practice discretion in granting deferred “removal action” to deport the children of undocumented immigrants from the U.S.

In the speech
“Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship — a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

2 million

Number of deportations (including removals and returns) occurring during Obama's first five years in office

12 million

Estimated number of undocumented people living in the United States

Aleman, who has resided for over a decade in the U.S., sits four places to the First Lady's left
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Although immigration authorities now have more flexibility in giving people such as Aleman more time to live and work in America, the change does not create a long-term path to citizenship and does not change immigrants’ legal status.

Aleman’s journey in America began when his parents, who work as a housekeeper and a carpenter, brought him illegally to Las Vegas at the age of 11. The new rule at least allows him to live free of deportation fears.

Children sharing Aleman’s status -- known collectively as DREAMers, after the legislation that would give them full U.S. citizenship -- do not yet have a clear path to naturalization.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act still has not passed at the national level, but 14 states have their own version of the law.

The president’s proposal is to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows, create a provisional legal status and enforce strict norms on eligibility for permanent residency.

Around 1.9 million of the 12 million unauthorized individuals in the U.S. are children who would be covered by the DREAM Act. Around 1.4 million of them could benefit from DACA, now or later. Some 400,000 DREAMers were granted deferred action in the program's first year.

2012: Jackie Bray and jobs

During his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama introduced the nation to Jackie Bray, a single mother laid off from her job as a mechanic. Bray got a second chance from a workforce training partnership between Siemens and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. 

In the speech
“[Siemens] helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant. I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did.”


Unemployment rate in 2013, down from a high of 9.3 in 2012


Unemployment rate Obama promised in his 2012 speech

Jackie Bray, next to Michelle Obama
Susan Walsh/AP

Just weeks after his address that year, the president announced an $8 billion plan – Community College to Career Fund – to “train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.”

The proposed skills training program was designed to:

  • Provide community colleges with resources they need to equip workers with crucial skills and industry-recognized credentials
  • Provide employers in high-growth industries with a skilled workforce they need for positions that might otherwise go unfilled—or overseas

The bill was finally introduced to Congress on July 8, 2013 – more than a year after the 2012 State of the Union address – and has yet to be put to vote in the Senate or House.  

Without the bill in place, the president's promise to bring the unemployment rate down to 5.3 percent after his first term remains a challenge well into his second term of office. When Obama became president in 2009, the unemployment rate was at 9.3 percent. The last year ended with the unemployment rate modestly lower at 7.4 percent.

2011: The Allens and energy

Robert and Gary Allen, owners of Allen Brothers Inc., a Michigan-based roofing company, were guests at President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address. In his push for clean, renewable energy, the president highlighted their success. The Allens received a $500,000 federal loan as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – to retool a section of their factory to manufacture solar shingles.

In the speech
“To spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we've begun to reinvent our energy policy. We're not just handing out money. We're issuing a challenge. We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.”


Amount of U.S. energy produced through renewable resources


Obama's 2035 goal for the percentage of America's energy to come from renewable sources

The Allen brothers sitting in the gallery

That year, U.S. production of renewable energy was on the rise. More than 12.5 percent of the country’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2011, up from 10.4 percent the year before.

“So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources,” Obama said.

The president’s efforts for clean energy did not stop with the Recovery Act. In conjunction with the Departments of Energy and Defense, the president launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to fund research and development in new technologies.

In 2010, Obama also announced measures to boost biofuels production, providing financial assistance to support converting biomass into renewable energy.

Despite momentum from the president, production of renewable energy has actually declined since 2011. In 2012, total renewable electricity production decreased slightly to 12.2 percent of overall electricity, which amounts to around 19 billion kilowatt-hours less than the year before.

In the face of economic uncertanty, investment in renewable energy has been scaled back at the global level. European countries are reducing their long-term commitment to combating climate change. Only $254 billion was invested in 2013, down from $286 billion in 2012 and almost $318 billion in 2011. U.S. investment declined to $48 billion in 2013, from $53 billion the year before. Unless oil prices rise and renewables become relatively cheaper fuel sources, there is less incentive to switch to alternative energy. With the petroleum boom in North America, this is unlikely.

2010: NBP and the economy

As the United States was still recovering from its deep recession, President Obama delivered his first actual State of the Union address on January 27, 2010. Shortly after taking office in 2009, Obama had signed the $787 billion stimulus package.

In his speech, the president referred to many businesses and organizations that relied on the Recovery Act funds, and one example he cited was the Philadelphia-based Northeast Building Products (NBP). President Obama mentioned the business as a success story:

In the speech
“Talk to the window manufacturer in Philadelphia who said he used to be skeptical about the Recovery Act, until he had to add two more work shifts just because of the business it created.”


Fourth quarter GDP growth in 2008


Fourth quarter GDP growth in 2009

Alan Levin (left), CEO of NBP
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Obama highlighted NBP as an example of how the stimulus was promoting job creation and putting America back on the path to economic recovery. And indeed it helped the window manufacturer in two ways. The first came as an uptick in business after $128 million of stimulus money was distributed to the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The second – and bigger – factor was the window tax credit, which resulted in a large amount of growth for the company.

"We share President Obama's vision for a greener America," said Alan Levin, NBP president and CEO. "By producing high-performance, ultra energy-efficient windows, we are able to play our part by providing products that help consumers reduce their energy consumption and save money through energy tax credits."

The stimulus package, which was eventually expanded to a total of $840 billion, provided funds in three main areas. Tax benefits, entitlement spending and a combination of grants and loans were all increased. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a month-by-month breakdown of job loss data shows employment steadily improving after the introduction of the stimulus. Critics, however, point out that the end of a recession will naturally see growth return, regardless of additional stimulus.

The unemployment rate increased throughout 2009, and economists have said the recession was much worse than what was projected. "The economy was plunging even more rapidly than we had previously recognized in the two quarters following the collapse of Lehman," said economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Yet, the plunge stopped in the second quarter of 2009 – just as the stimulus came on line."

2009: Ty'Sheoma and education

The theme of "hope" dominated Obama's address to the Joint Session of Congress in February 2009, and education was high on his list of priorities:

In the speech

“But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary...

“And I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina — a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room.”


26th, 17th and 21st

U.S. ranking out of 34 OECD countries in math, reading and science


Amount spent per student in the United States, fifth in the world


Amount spent per student in Slovakia, where test scores are equal to those of U.S. students

Ty'Sheoma Bethea with her grandmother and the First Lady

Ty'Sheoma Bethea was 14 when she wrote a letter to Congress about the decrepit state of her school in Dillon County, South Carolina, and was subsequently invited by the White House for Obama's first annual address to the nation as president. Two years later, her county saw the opening of a new middle school, made possible by a $46 million low-interest federal loan and a $4 million federal grant.

Vernita F. Dore, Rural Development State Director for South Carolina, credited legislation signed by Obama for the new school. "The Recovery Act signed by President Obama more than a year ago made this funding possible and demonstrates the Obama Administration’s goal to create jobs and improve education for rural America. Because of the stimulus money, Rural Development was able to provide $39.5 million for Dillon County Schools," she said.

In an interview with ABC in 2011, Bethea said that she wanted to become the first female U.S. president. She also revealed that she was inspired to write her letter to Congress because she thought too much stimulus money was going to people who already had enough. "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters," the letter said.

Obama has made educational opportunity a central part of his platform since taking office in 2009, immediately launching the Race to the Top program, which rewards innovation and performance in schools, and has already spurred 46 states to raise their educational standards in order to qualify and compete. Later that year, the Obama administration announced it was funnelling billions of dollars into turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools.

The recent announcement of Promise Zones further commits the president to expanding opportunities in designated low-income areas of the nation.

Although Obama has pushed through some reforms on the controversial No Child Left Behind program – such as a waiver system for states that alters how schools are held accountable for performance – critics have pointed out that the program should be dropped entirely.

Pushing for higher education, Obama capped federal student loan repayments at 10 percent of income, increasing affordability and access to universities and colleges. Obama also has put a priority on the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – citing waning American dominance in those areas. In early January 2014, Obama met with higher education officials from around the country, winning their commitment to expanding access to higher education, particularly for high-performing, low-income youth.

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