(MCT) — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the fresh face Republicans chose to respond to the State of the Union address, sounded familiar party themes Tuesday night, accusing President Barack Obama of stifling economic growth through an overreliance on taxes and spending.
The opportunity “to make it to the middle class or beyond, no matter where you start out in life, it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington,” Rubio said in his nationally broadcast remarks, but comes from “a vibrant economy.”
That is something presidents in both parties, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, have recognized, Rubio said. “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”
Rubio, speaking from the Capitol, repeated GOP calls for a constitutional balanced-budget amendment and an overhaul of the Medicare and Social Security programs, though he provided no specifics. “Anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it,” Rubio said.
The roughly 15-minute speech provided a national platform for the freshman senator, 41, whose youth, Latino heritage and swing-state pedigree make him a leading presidential prospect for the embattled GOP.
While embracing what has been party orthodoxy for the past generation, Rubio did offer a few departures. He delivered his speech in both English and Spanish, the latter pre-recorded for broadcast. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, also emphasized his working-class background, a distinct — if unspoken — contrast with the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, the affluent Mitt Romney.
Rubio lives in the same west Miami neighborhood where he grew up, he said, surrounded by immigrants, retirees who count on Social Security and Medicare, and people who get up early and “go to work to pay the bills.”
“My neighbors aren’t millionaires” and his opposition to Obama’s agenda stems not from a desire “to protect the rich,” he said. “I oppose (his) plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
A former speaker of the Florida House, Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 with strong tea party support. He has since moved away from the hard-edged conservative movement, however, as he settles into Washington and eyes a potential White House bid.
That left Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another 2010 tea party favorite, to deliver its formal response to the president.
Speaking at Washington’s National Press Club, Paul took aim at both major parties.
“It is often said that there is not enough bipartisanship up here. That’s not true,” Paul said. “Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses.
“It is time for a new bipartisan consensus,” Paul went on. “It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans — myself included — realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”
If rebutting the president offered a prime opportunity for Rubio, it also presented a risk. The task is an inherently difficult one and closely scrutinized. Much of the immediate reaction Tuesday night, for instance, focused on Rubio’s lunge for a swig of water near the close of his remarks.
Others given the same platform have famously bombed, including, most recently, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Critics — Democrat and Republican alike — derided not only his 2009 remarks, but also Jindal’s mannerisms, his sing-song delivery and the backdrop he chose for his 10-minute speech (a spiral staircase in the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge).
The damage, though, isn’t necessarily lasting. Like Rubio, Jindal is now being talked about as another prospective fresh-faced Republican savior, should he seek the White House in 2016.
(Joseph Tanfani in the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)