The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why some Republicans want to cancel the State of the Union address

The Post’s latest report about negotiations among congressional Republicans on how to proceed with a budget and striking back against President Obama’s immigration actions contained this colorful nugget:

Late Tuesday, Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.) called for Boehner to not invite Obama to deliver the State of the Union address next year. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) suggested that the budgets for White House operations, including for Air Force One, should be decreased. Other conservatives have mentioned censuring the president, impeaching him or suing the administration over its immigration actions.
“I’d rather defund Air Force One,” Huelskamp said. “Congress took a 19 percent cut on its budgets — we should do the same for the White House.” On the State of the Union, he added: “In the spirit of George Washington, he could send it to us in writing. It’d save some time.”

The idea of disinviting Obama from delivering the State of the Union address is apparently gaining currency on the right. Though it seems like the pettiest of actions, there’s something significant driving it: A fundamental unwillingness to accept that Barack Obama is legitimately the President of the United States.

This isn’t new, but I suspect we’re going to be seeing more ideas like this one pop up, as Republicans find themselves stymied on policy and look for ways to strike out at the president.

When I make reference to Republicans’ unusually powerful loathing for this president, I often get emails from conservative readers saying that I’m wrong; they don’t hate him, they just disagree with his policies. These protests are a little hard to take seriously when among other things so many on the right spent years questioning whether Barack Obama is actually an American at all. The fact that the birther movement has faded recently should not make us forget that the president of the United States was literally forced to produce his birth certificate to prove to his political opponents that he is indeed an American and therefore eligible to be president.

And that was just the most visible manifestation of the unwillingness of so many to accept the legitimacy of his presidency. This is not a fringe belief held only by a few. One poll taken just after the 2012 election found that 49 percent of Republicans believed that ACORN had stolen the election for Obama. That would have been a remarkable feat for any organization, but particularly so for ACORN, since it went out of business in 2010. The absurdity of that particular idea aside, a simple refusal to accept that Barack Obama is legitimately the president is common from the bottom to the top of the conservative movement, among ordinary voters, activists, media figures, and even elected officials. Republican Rep. Peter King said last year that there are “probably 30 or 40” of his colleagues who refuse to accept the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency.

So the only surprising thing is that it took them so long to get around to discussing the cancellation of the State of the Union address. The address is reliably boring no matter who the president is, and it’s true that for much of the country’s history it was delivered in writing. But it serves an important purpose. It’s the only time when the entire federal government — all of Congress, most of the Supreme Court, and the cabinet, representing the three branches — gathers in one room. It says to the nation, this is your political leadership. They have their differences, but once a year they assemble to hear what the president has to say. Their presence is an implicit validation of the entire political structure and the president’s place atop it.

Naturally, some Republicans bristle at being forced to participate in this public validation of the president’s power and position. But what else can they do? I was particularly taken with Rep. Huelskamp’s suggestion that they “defund Air Force One.” After all, what is Barack Obama doing flying around in the president’s plane? Who does he think he is?

In the next two years there are going to be plenty of times when Republicans will feel hindered and frustrated by the president on matters of policy. And when Obama uses his executive authority, they’ll be particularly incensed — if you think the president shouldn’t really be president at all, it’s all the more galling when he brazenly employs the powers of the office you don’t think he deserves to hold. So even if Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are smart enough not to cancel the State of the Union address, we could to see increasing pressure from inside and outside Congress to find ways to chip away at the accoutrements and prerogatives of the presidency. They’ll inevitably fail, but the attempt tells us quite a bit about this era of American politics.