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Saturday 28 May 2016

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Empty chair for gun victims as Obama addresses America

Published 12/01/2016

US president Barack Obama's gun control efforts have been repeatedly blocked by Congress
US president Barack Obama's gun control efforts have been repeatedly blocked by Congress

Barack Obama will hammer home his campaign for gun control with an empty-chair tribute to shooting victims during his final State of the Union address.

The main thrust of the US president's speech will attempt to frame the choice facing Americans as they select his successor, doling out an optimistic vision of the country's future in contrast with what he sees as the pessimism pervasive in the Republican primary.

But the Obamas' guests will also reflect what is likely to be left undone or incomplete when the president leaves office.

A chair in first lady Michelle Obama's box will be left empty to honour victims of gun violence.

Despite a rash of mass shootings during his tenure, Mr Obama has been unable to get Congress to pass gun control laws, settling instead for more modest executive actions, including steps announced last week to expand background checks for weapons purchases.

The president has also invited a refugee from war-torn Syria to attend the speech, a symbolic counter to Republicans proposing to block Syrians seeking asylum in the US. But the selection is also a reminder of Mr Obama's inability to end the bloodshed in Syria, where the nearly five-year civil war has spurred a refugee crisis and created a vacuum for terrorism.

Mr Obama will not appeal directly for Americans to keep the Democratic Party in the White House for a third straight term or endorse a specific candidate in the 2016 race, but he will outline domestic and international priorities that build on steps he has taken during his two terms in office, a vision certain to be more in line with Hillary Clinton and other Democrats than the Republican presidential candidates.

"He feels very optimistic about this future," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said. "That, by the way, is something that's a little different than some of the doom and gloom that we hear from the Republican candidates out there every day."

Tuesday's US prime-time address marks a transition for Mr Obama - his last high-profile opportunity to speak to the public before voting in the first presidential nominating contests begins on February 1 with the Iowa caucuses.

The looming election means prospects are low for significant legislative accomplishments between the Democratic president and Republican politicians. Acknowledging that reality, Mr Obama's speech will have few of the new policy proposals that typically fill the annual nationally-televised presidential address to both chambers of Congress.

Mr Obama has so far succeeded in staving off lame duck status, largely through a series of sweeping executive orders, as the nation's attention has been drawn inevitably to the presidential contest.

Still, his reliance on executive powers means many of his actions could be erased by a Republican president. He has vowed to campaign aggressively for the Democratic nominee and his administration is seen as favouring Mrs Clinton, though he will not formally back a candidate during his party's primary.

Some presidential candidates, including Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida will be on hand for Mr Obama's address. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an independent seeking the Democratic nomination, will also be present.

Mr Obama is likely to tout progress on the economy, which was plunging into the depths of recession when he took office and is now humming at a more comfortable pace.

He is expected to keep up his appeals for broader actions to address gun violence, reform the criminal justice system and approve a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade pact.

He will also try to convince a public increasingly sceptical of his foreign policy stewardship that he has a handle on the volatile Middle East and is taking steps to prevent terrorism in the United States.

"There's a lot we have to get done over the course of the next year," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The pomp and pageantry of the address in the House of Representatives chamber will also have a splash of the transparent nostalgia that is a hallmark of the Obama political operation.

Among the guests sitting in Mrs Obama's box will be Edith Childs, a South Carolina woman who first introduced Mr Obama to the "Fired up! Ready to go!" chant that became ubiquitous during his 2008 campaign.

Republicans have selected South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to give the opposing party's rebuttal. In another reminder of the fast-approaching election, Ms Haley, whose parents are immigrants from India, is seen as a potential running mate for the eventual Republican nominee.

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