I have to be honest about this: We got an embarrassingly weak recitation of stale Republican jargon about taxes, debt burdens and the virtues of free enterprise. He attempted to cast Obama as “obsessed” with raising taxes and vastly expanding government. I don’t think any but the most ideologically extreme right-wingers believe that was the message Obama delivered. Yet this is what Rubio claimed. It was remarkably disconnected from the real words spoken by Obama and the reality that most Americans are living through.
There were moments when Rubio attempted to connect with hardworking Americans, with immigrants — indeed, with anyone who believes in the American dream. These efforts were variously hollow, contradictory or executed far more effectively by Obama. He criticizes government programs and spending, yet admits that his own education required government-backed loans and his parents’ health care was totally dependent on Medicare.
Obama offered specific strategies for reform. Rubio and the Republicans replied with vague claims about never hurting those on Medicare while somehow making debt reduction the paramount priority. Say what, Marco?
It was as if a Mitt Romney speechwriter had taken control of android Rubio and said, “Well, with one more reiteration — now delivered by a young, nonbillionaire Latino — our 2012 campaign message will finally carry the day.” It didn’t. Not even close. It didn’t work in November and does not work now. Rubio certainly was not a competitive challenge to the clarity, commonsense quality and fundamentally reasonable tone of Obama’s address.
Rubio seems a talented and ambitious young politician. He may have ideas of his own and a message for America that will ultimately have some traction. If so, almost none of those qualities were on display last night. This is too bad.
It seems he does deserve some real credit for the compromise immigration-reform measure now under consideration in Washington. But this speech did nothing to elaborate on those ideas or really signal that they were a priority for Republicans. The speech did not signal that he would be an effective standard-bearer for a refashioned Republican Party. Instead, it proved only that Rubio can recite the worn-out partisan slogans of the last decade or so.
In contrast, Obama signaled unambiguously in this speech that he has mastered his message, in the fashion of a previous Great Communicator. If Republicans insist on extreme positions, Obama is clearly willing to call them on it in a direct, homespun fashion that he resisted in his first term. And if Rubio’s response to the State of the Union is any indication, the Republicans really have not fashioned any convincing response to this reborn president. I’m OK with that. Are you?
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.