The State of the Union gives President Barack Obama the once-a-year chance to capture as much of the nation’s undivided attention as possible, hammer home his political priorities, and kick start his agenda for another year.
Giving him a hand are some important guests invited to the annual event — the guests of honor who will sit in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box. Some of them usually get a short mention or nod in Obama’s speech, with a possible camera pan along with the mention. They are there for Obama to emphasize the policies he believes to be important.
But members of Congress also have the opportunity to counter the president’s strategic invitations with their own. The most evident battle comes in Obama’s change in policy toward Cuba — he is inviting the man freed as part of a landmark deal to restore diplomatic relations with the island nation, while House Speaker John Boehner is inviting two prominent Cuban dissidents.
Here are some of the most intriguing names on the State of the Union guest list, from the White House to members of Congress on Capitol Hill:
- Alan and Judy Gross: Gross, the American released last month after more than five years in captivity in Cuba, and his wife will be in the Capitol as guests of the first lady. He was the public face of a deal that restores diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century.
- Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antunez) and Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera, members of Cuban resistance movement: They will be guests of House Speaker John Boehner, who is making a point in opposing Obama's actions on Cuba. Antunez was the leader of a Cuban resistance movement in Cuba and spent 17 years in jail before his release in 2007. Aguilera, his wife, founded the Rosa Parks Feminine Civic Rights Movement to fight against the human rights violations in Castro's government. After Antunez’s release from prison in 2007, he and his wife were two of many who started a hunger strike to protest the Cuban government. They garnered support from leaders in Uruguay, Argentina, and Costa Rica.
- Rosa Maria Paya, Cuban activist: Paya is the guest of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), another prominent detractor of the Obama administration’s new approach to Cuba. Paya is the daughter of Oswaldo Paya, who was killed in a car accident that the vehicle’s driver has since said was deliberately targeted by Cuban authorities. The Cuban government has refused to conduct an independent investigation into the accident. Rosa Maria Paya is a member of the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement and keeps up active Twitter and Facebook accounts.
- Marlene Alejandre Triana, Cuban dissident: Triana is the guest of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), a prominent skeptic of the Obama administration’s shift in Cuba policy. She is the daughter of Armando Alejandre Jr., a pilot for a Miami-based Cuban exile group whose plane was shot down by the Cuban Air Force in 1996. One of the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” convicted with conspiracy to commit murder was released as part of the Obama administration’s deal. “For the only person that we had responsible for what happened to be let go — it’s a slap in the face to my dad,” Triana said in a press conference soon after the deal was announced.
- Ana Zamora, student, DREAMer: Zamora, who lives in Dallas, benefits from Obama's 2012 executive action to delay the deportation of and grant work permits to some young undocumented immigrants. She wrote Obama a letter in September outlining how she's benefitted from the DACA relief program, after being brought to the country by her parents when she was less than one year old. She attended Northwood University in Texas and got a job after graduation, thanks to her new work permit. Her parents are also eligible to benefit from the executive actions the president announced in November, since she has brothers and sisters who are U.S. citizens, according to the White House. “I am finally a person in the United States,” she wrote in a letter to the president last year. “I have a social security number, an employment authorization card and a driver’s license to drive the car I pay for with my own money (which I earned working with my employment authorization card) and pay taxes as any law-abiding U.S. citizen. I could not be more proud of myself!!!"
- Scott Kelly, astronaut: Scott Kelly is the twin brother of Mark Kelly, the husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Come March, Scott Kelly will be the first American to live and work aboard the International Space Station. He'll be there for an entire year, conducting hundreds of research projects and other experiments. One of his most important projects will come after he’s finished: His body will also be compared to his brother's after a year to study the effects of remaining in space for so long. It could provide something of a barometer for a goal Obama has pushed: Getting human explorers to Mars by 2030.
- Nicole Hernandez Hammer, sea-level researcher: Hammer, who lives in southeast Florida, has placed particular emphasis on how cities and regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change will disproportionately affect Latino communities. She is of Cuban heritage and came to the United States from Guatemala. She also blogs about her research for Latina Lista.
- Open seat: One Michigan congressman is doing something unusual: Leaving his seat open. Rep. Dan Kildee (D) is doing so in solidarity with Amir Hekmati, a Flint, Mich., native who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than three years. Hekmati was accused of espionage and was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was later reduced to 10 years. "Every year, we think about who we should invite to be our guest … and it was very obvious to me that if it was any one person I represent … that I would love to see sitting in that seat, it's Amir Hekmati," Kildee said. "Let's hold a seat for him here to help send a message to the country and to the world and to Iran that Amir Hekmati should be home."
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.