Let's talk about Michelle Obama's empty chair at the State of the Union address

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The empty seat next to the first lady was a symbolic seat for victims of gun violence. So why did the president all but ignore that issue in his speech? - MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES
  • Mark Wilson/Getty Images
  • The empty seat next to the first lady was a symbolic seat for victims of gun violence. So why did the president all but ignore that issue in his speech?

A chair is still a chair, even if there's no one sitting there.

During the president's final State of the Union address Tuesday evening, First Lady Michelle Obama sat beside an empty chair—one that was symbolically reserved for the victims of gun violence across America.

Yet President Obama directly addressed the persistent injustices of gun deaths only once, alongside a litany of other short-listed policy goals. "Tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead. Don't worry, I've got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to . . . protecting our kids from gun violence."

That's all we got.

And it came early on in the 58 minutes and 40 seconds he spent speaking atop the House Chamber dais. In context, the president's mention of gun violence suggests that the issue remains on the agenda—a hedging way of offering acknowledgment while noting that he'd spend more time "focusing on the future" for the duration of the address.

Indeed, much of Obama's speech focused on economic inequality, climate change, foreign policy, and national security. Above all else, he encouraged Americans to bridge political divides by making our politics "reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst."

Oh, but for that empty chair, I weep inside.

It's a far cry from the unoccupied seat that took center stage at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where Clint Eastwood berated a void that represented President Obama himself. Eastwood directly addressed the crowd while standing beside the chair, claiming that Obama was a "national disgrace" and that "it may be time for someone else to come and solve the problem." Of course, that was before Eastwood began a conversation with his imaginary friend—er, foe—onstage. "What do you want me to tell Romney?" he asked. "I can't tell him to do that to himself … you're getting as bad as Biden."

No, the empty chair next to Michelle Obama wasn't a tool of partisan polarization, akin to the kind the president railed against during Tuesday night's address.

But Eastwood acknowledged his empty chair. Obama's speech did not directly address the meaning and importance of the one by the first lady.

In other words, if viewers missed earlier reports contextualizing the empty chair, they would've been led to believe that one of the first lady's esteemed guests had backed out of their invitation at the last minute. Most audiences likely didn't have a clue what the chair was for.

Had Obama taken a less calculated, more consequential approach to his remarks, maybe, just maybe, we would've heard one direct reference to communities such as San Bernardino or Charleston, where guns in the hands of extremists snuffed out lives via mass shootings. We would've heard at least one direct reference to the Laquan McDonalds, the Sandra Blands, the Cedric Chatmans, the Bettie Joneses, and Quintonio LeGriers, whose lives were taken away this past year by the imprudent use of police force.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, the president took the time to mention Newtown and gun violence victims such as Chicago's own Hadiya Pendleton by name. And as we entered this new year, Obama announced a set of executive actions on gun violence.

Yet for his final address on the state of our union, the only acknowledgement of the undeniable impact of #BlackLivesMatter on the life of the nation was a reference to the "protester who believes that justice matters" (emphasis mine) alongside a reference to young cops who do their best to serve communities across the country.

As MSNBC's Trymaine Lee noted, perhaps the president thought the empty chair spoke louder than words Tuesday night. But for the many, many empty chairs in Chicago homes on that very evening, many of them belonging to black families, the pain and longing represented within that missing space could've been more directly connected to that seat near the first lady.



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