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State of the Union: Obama and Rubio go head to head on the middle class (+video)

In the State of the Union and the GOP response, President Obama and Senator Rubio offer starkly different visions of how government can help (or hurt) the middle class – and those aspiring to join it.

By Staff writer / February 13, 2013

President Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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WASHINGTON

The battle for the middle class has been joined.

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As promised, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama made a full-on pitch for measures aimed at promoting the nation’s vast economic middle – and those aspiring to get there.

The president called for a substantial hike in the federal minimum wage, from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour, over the next three years. He called for investments in early education, worker training, and domestic manufacturing. He repeated his call, without detail, for “modest reforms” to social programs – foremost, Medicare – as rising health-care costs drive up long-term debt. And, as the March 1 deadline looms for deep, across-the-board spending cuts, he repeated his insistence that “the well-off and well-connected” pay more in taxes.

“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs, that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Mr. Obama said.

But in the most closely watched Republican reply speech in memory, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida presented a starkly different vision of the path to middle-class prosperity. If Obama’s address was an affirmation of the Democratic ethos that the guiding hand of government leads to economic growth, then Senator Rubio presented a reaffirmation of his party’s philosophy of small government.

And perhaps most important, Rubio presented himself as the anti-Mitt Romney – the son of Cuban immigrants who worked their way into the middle class, in contrast to the born-wealthy 2012 Republican nominee, whose rich-person gaffes damaged his campaign and his party’s image.

Expecting Obama’s focus on the middle class, Rubio came right back at him.

“This 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,” said Rubio, seen as a likely GOP prospect for the 2016 presidential race.  “It comes from a vibrant free economy, where people can risk their own money to open a business, and when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.”

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