The job of responding to the State of the Union address is a thankless task. You wind up looking puny compared to the president in the House chamber surrounded by the Congress, cabinet, Supreme Court justices and invited guests. No one wants to hear an hour-long response to an hour-long SOTU so you have to be brief — yet without looking superficial.
At worst, the responder looks like he’s taped a hostage video. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal still hasn’t recovered from his much-mocked response in 2009. (The best response in recent years was likely Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell who had the sense to surround himself with other people, including his cabinet.)
But tonight might be an exception to the rule. Some political watchers are more interested to see how a new face, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), looks and sounds than to hear another presidential laundry list and “focus like a laser” hooey about jobs. Rubio at least is not shopworn. His only other speech on this sort of national level was his Republican National Convention speech, which got solidly positive reviews. Breaking the mold of past SOTU speakers and responders, he will give his remarks in English and in Spanish.
Rubio may share his immigrant life story, a familiar topic for him and one which aims to connect beyond the traditional GOP base. He may talk about immigration reform, although his position is not one shared by the entire party. However, I suspect he’ll focus on the kind of positive agenda he spelled out at the Jack Kemp dinner last December and which House majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) focused on last week. He’ll want to paint a brighter alternative than the one President Obama is offering, not simply defined by being against tax hikes, deficits and gun legislation.
Now it is supposed to be a response to the president, a job made easier by the predictably of this president. (“Invest” more. Have the “rich” pay more. Preserve entitlement programs just as they are.) In this regard, Rubio will also want to show his base he can throw a punch — but with a smile. He will likely make the case that the “recovery” is more like a ditch dug by Obama, an inevitable result of his statist policies. He’ll want to demolish the argument that we can spend more and get better results. (Frankly, that part of the president’s message is absurd in the fifth year of his presidency sporting a $16 trillion debt.) In doing this, he can set the stage for the sequester and budget fights ahead.
If Rubio can tie the argument for fiscal sobriety to the need for a private-sector revival, demonstrate he is an accessible and relatable politician and express an optimistic vision of America from an immigrant family’s perspective, he’ll accomplish quite a lot. The Republicans want to make the case that the president represents the failed status quo while they offer a new, can-do reform agenda. In that regard, Rubio presenting himself as the face of the party will help elevate his own profile and, Republicans hope, present the GOP in a new light.