Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST, President Obama will deliver the eighth and final State of the Union address of his presidency. It will air on all major networks, as well as being streamed through whitehouse.gov and other sources.
The State of the Union address will include an empty chair next to First Lady Michelle Obama, intended to bring attention to victims of gun violence. According to FOX News, an Obama official said the empty seat was for “the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them.”
Obama’s decision to leave a seat empty at the State of the Union comes shortly after he announced his intent to bypass a gridlocked Congress and introduce a series of gun control reforms through executive action. Though many commentators, including Doyle McManus of Sun-Sentinel, regard the reforms as mild, Obama’s use of executive action has ignited controversy in rabidly pro-gun circles.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and a frontrunner in the GOP presidential candidate, is skipping the State of the Union, according to the Hill. Cruz, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, opposes President Obama’s gun control initiatives and tweeted out in protest of the empty seat, “If I’m elected POTUS, there’ll be an empty seat for the over 50 million unborn children killed since Roe.”
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) January 8, 2016
A Cruz campaign spokesperson, Rick Tyler, says Cruz’s State of the Union no-show is not intended as a snub. The senator will simply instead be busy campaigning in New Hampshire.
“It won’t matter because he’ll be just as disappointed in New Hampshire as he will be in the chamber,” Tyler said.
Whether intended as a snub or not, a politician’s decision to attend the State of the Union – or to not attend – can have political ramifications and send certain signals. Dan Schill, an associate professor at James Madison University, told the Hill that Cruz’s decision was unlikely to turn off too many primary voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, but said Cruz runs the risk.
“The choice to stiff the [State of the Union] speech can send a message it’s time for change. It may also backfire for people who see it as not respecting office of the presidency,” Schill said.
It’s unclear if President Obama will address the empty chair directly, as Clint Eastwood did at the 2012 Republican National Convention. In that case, the empty chair was meant to represent Obama himself.
One seat at the State of the Union that will be filled is the one set aside for Obama’s guest, a Syrian scientist and refugee named Refaai Hamo. Hamo will have a seat in First Lady Michelle Obama’s visitor box. A month ago, Hamo was featured in a post on the popular blog, Humans of New York. President Obama’s Facebook account left an encouraging comment on the post telling Hamo’s story.
Brandon Stanton, founder of the Humans of New York blog, told the New York Daily News he agreed with Obama’s decision to invite Hamo to the State of the Union.
“I’m very happy Dr. Hamo has been selected to represent the refugee population at the State of The Union … [refugees] are foremost looking for security, normalcy and a chance to contribute … I think Dr. Hamo represents this ethic well, and I think it’s very fitting that he’s being honored.”
As a refugee, Hamo witnessed a missile claim the lives of his wife and daughter before escaping with his son. In December, Hamo and his son arrived in their new home of Troy, Michigan.
Whitehouse.gov offered a preview of what this year’s State of the Union will cover. Obama plans to highlight some of his past accomplishments, including passage of Obamacare, the economic recovery, advancements in the LGBT movement, and normalizing of relations with Cuba. He will also address challenges that lie ahead, such as climate change and income inequality.
[Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]