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ANALYSIS

State of the Union: Empty seat honours the dead

Washington: When Barack Obama gives his last State of the Union address to a combined sitting of Congress on Tuesday evening one of the coveted gallery seats will remain empty, set aside by the White House to represent those killed by guns in America.

"We leave one seat empty in the First Lady's State of the Union guest box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them. To tell their stories. To honour their memory," the White House said in a statement.

Obama's SOTU speeches: a retrospective

The White House releases a video of Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses going back to 2009, with the focus on employment and the economy.

The annual State of the Union address, a duty the US constitution requires of the President, is often a triumph of theatre over substance.

It was Ronald Reagan, the president who perhaps best understood the theatre of his office, who began the tradition of inviting guests to be used as symbols of the nation's aspirations and achievements, when he invited Lenny Skutnik to the chamber in 1982. Mr Skutnik, a federal government worker, had risked his life, diving into the icy Potomac River to save a woman from a crashed aircraft.

Barack Obama waves before giving his State of the Union address last year. This year's will be his last.
Barack Obama waves before giving his State of the Union address last year. This year's will be his last. Photo: AP

Other guests will include a Syrian refugee, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that saw the right to same-sex marriage become law and Major Lisa Jaster, the first woman to complete America's most elite military training and earn the right to wear a Ranger tab on her uniform.

But it will be the empty chair that is most obvious before the cameras.

Since Mr Obama has been President almost 250,000 Americans have died at the end of the gun in the United States, about two-thirds of them by suicide.

Mr Obama has said his failure to convince Congress to act on gun law reform has been his greatest frustration as President.

President Barack Obama gives his 2015 State of the Union on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mr Obama will deliver his final ...
President Barack Obama gives his 2015 State of the Union on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mr Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address at 9pm on Tuesday (1pm on Wednesday AEDT). Photo: AP

But the empty chair could just as easily represent the absence of collegiality or even of a basic working relationship between the President and Congress.

When Mr Obama won the presidency Republicans in Congress adopted a policy of absolute opposition to his entire agenda, a strategy that wrecked any chance of a working relationship with the White House.

Barack Obama gives his State of the Union in 2015 as Vice-President Joe Biden and House speaker John Boehner listen.
Barack Obama gives his State of the Union in 2015 as Vice-President Joe Biden and House speaker John Boehner listen.  Photo: AP

The acrimony was so bitter in 2009 that Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, yelled, "You lie!" at the President during the 2009 State of the Union, a breach of protocol previously unthinkable in the modern era.

Even Democrats in Congress have found the President distant and even difficult to work with.

Mr Obama was blunt enough to flag this strategy in his 2014 State of the Union.

"I'm eager to work with all of you," he said during that speech. "But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

The White House has let it be known this year that the President will break with the standard practice of reciting a shopping list of goals for his last 12 months in office.

Instead, according to a White House statement, he intends to put forward a means by which "the American people, can once again come together in pursuit of a country worthy of generations to come".

Well, perhaps. But you can also expect in the election year, that the President will seek to burnish his record by raising policy areas where he can at once boast of his own achievements while simultaneously uniting the Democratic voters and dividing Republicans – areas like climate change and gun control.

This is the best way he can assist the likely Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her victory at the end of the year is the only way he can ensure his legacy.

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