State of the Union: Obama and Rubio go head to head on the middle class

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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
In this frame grab from video, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida takes a sip of water during his Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.

The battle for the middle class has been joined.

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.”

Perhaps anticipating the Democratic counterpunch, that the Republican approach means “you’re on your own,” Rubio stated that “of course” there is a role for government – for safety, enforcing rules, and “providing some security against the risks of modern life.” He spoke fondly of his retiree neighbors in a working-class neighborhood in Miami, who receive Social Security and Medicare. And he affirmed his support for federal financial aid for college, as a recipient himself who, he said, had just finished paying off his $100,000 in loans.

The two speeches, both combative in tone, captured the essential differences between the two parties – and probably accomplished little in advancing policy amid partisan polarization and gridlock.  Whatever resolution is to come over the spending cuts known as the “sequester,” a threatened government shutdown, and the next debt ceiling crisis is likely to happen behind closed doors.

In his address, Obama lamented the state of affairs in Washington.

“The greatest nation on earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” he said.

As so, as he has done before, he is taking his argument directly to the American people. On Wednesday, he hits the road for three days of campaign-style events in Ashville, N.C., Atlanta, and Chicago.

In addition, Obama’s old campaign apparatus – now an outside group called Organizing for Action, armed with the president’s millions-strong e-mail list – is trying to keep his most loyal supporters active in support of his agenda.

But just as Rubio and the Republicans have limited opportunity to enact their agenda, the president’s prospects are also uncertain. In the emotional high point of the State of the Union, Obama made a plea for action on gun violence that centered on a simple request.

“They deserve a vote,” he said, referring to the lives that have been touched.

It was not even a request to pass anything, just to allow a vote. Obama’s call centered on the provision seen as most likely to have a chance of passage – expanded background checks for gun purchases – rather than his proposal to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which went unstated.

The evening’s biggest made-for-TV moment came when Obama highlighted the problems some Americans faced in casting ballots last fall – and cited the case of Desilene Victor of North Miami, a 102-year-old woman whose hours-long wait to vote became a community effort. When Obama introduced Ms. Victor, who was in the gallery, members craned their necks to see her.  No doubt a collective “awww” emanated from living rooms across the country.

Obama proposed a commission to address the long lines at the polls. But whether any reforms will result is another question. Like most everything else in Washington, it is an issue riven with partisan differences.

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