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by Jules Witcover
The anticipated verbal duel between President Obama and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- the former in his State of the Union Address and the latter in the official Republican response -- was an obvious mismatch. It seemed a case of man vs. boy, and of a perhaps overly ambitious agenda for the future vs. the same old
The president, invoking all the pomp and power of his office, had one of politics' best platforms from which to preach optimistically of progress at home and withdrawal from combat abroad. He used it to build on his second inaugural speech on how he would re-energize a flagging American middle class.
Rubio, confined to an ordinary
Rubio's appearance came amid much discussion of the
His selection to rebut Obama was a recognition that his party needs to respond more to the needs of Latino voters, who gave the president a whopping 73 percent of their votes last November. But Rubio's message merely sought to outbid Obama as a champion of the middle class. It was a futile effort in light of the president's proposals that included a boost in the federal minimum wage and a new preschool initiative for kids of poor parents.
Obama, with his re-election behind him, spelled out the aggressive proposals of his second inaugural address in more inclusive and combative tones, building on the new leadership image he has been projecting for his second term. Rubio, in contrast, failed to offer himself as much more than an earnest young messenger recycling the old conservative
Alluding to the way Romney was effectively tarred as a well-heeled defender of the haves against the nation's have-nots, Rubio said he did not oppose Obama's agenda "because I want to protect the rich." Rather, he said, he wanted to "protect my neighbors, hard-working Americans who don't need us to come up with a plan to grow the government."
At the same time, Rubio acknowledged that his neighbors, including his own mother, were "retirees who depend on
Rubio's presentation had no memorable moment to match the president's closing exhortation to the members of
Unfortunately for Rubio, his own most memorable moment had nothing to do with the substance of anything he said. Rather, late in his speech, when he reached out of the television camera's view for a water bottle and quickly gulped from it, tweeting viewers went berserk.
Such is the nature of commentary in the trivialized world of social media. Rubio's distracting lurch had, of course, nothing to do with the substance of what he was saying. But it left him open to the merciless ridicule of the late-night comedians posing as social and political commentators.
At only 41, boyishly attractive and articulate, Marco Rubio from his
But his initial foray into presidential politics hardly established him as the Republican version of the Barack Obama who catapulted to national attention with his speech to the 2004
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Obama and Rubio: A Study in Contrasts | Politics