Kreitzer said the presence of controversial figures at an event reflects the reality of American politics.
“The presence of key figures on opposing sides of politicized issues attending the State of the Union at the same time does epitomize the political differences facing the country today,” she said.
Also in attendance were representatives from Planned Parenthood and the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of nuns who refused to provide birth-control coverage to their employees as required in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan invited two representatives from the Little Sisters of the Poor — a move that was criticized by Planned Parenthood, which tweeted about Ryan's "disrespect."
Daniel Kreiss, assistant professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism, said he couldn’t find anything wrong with the invitation in a democratic society that cherishes pluralistic values.
“I think it’s healthy to have a range of different opinions and views and people who represent different sides of public debate because that’s what democracy is about,” he said.
Though the guests elected officials invited to the address may demonstrate their stance on the issues, Kreiss said such a display does not necessarily amount to “hyperpolarization.”
“For example, Michelle Obama’s empty chair was very much staying with her husband’s administration’s stance on gun violence and that we need to take public policy action in response to it,” he said.
The empty chair Kreiss referred to was the vacant seat in the First Lady’s box, left empty to honor the victims of gun violence — and perceived as an extension of Obama’s executive actions to expand gun control since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Also present in the First Lady's box were Syrian refugee Refaai Hamo — featured on the popular Humans of New York Facebook page — and Mexican immigrant Oscar Vazquez.
The President's speech concluded with images of the everyday American — a woman waiting in line at the polls, a new citizen, a young soldier — which were reflected in the makeup of the audience.
"That's the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge.
Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the
final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our
future," he said.
"I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people — and that’s why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong."