He argued that low taxes, limited regulations and smaller government would free the economy from the shackles of big government that he contended Obama offered in his address.
But the senator from Florida focused sharply on how such conservative ideas could boost the middle class and improve people’s lives, part of a new effort by Republicans to more clearly connect their vision with the everyday problems of ordinary Americans.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors: hardworking, middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government.”
The new push comes after a campaign year in which Democrats successfully branded the GOP as champions of the wealthy.
Convinced that Obama would retain the unapologetically liberal tone of last month’s inaugural address in the State of the Union speech, Rubio offered no sense of a party humbled by its November losses, instead advancing a strong defense of Republican values.
He called for a balanced-budget amendment to force Washington to reduce spending and accused Obama of an “obsession” with raising taxes rather than tackling growing deficits through spending cuts or economic growth.
Rubio was carefully chosen by House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to serve as a friendlier, hipper and more inclusive fighter for their cause at a time when the party is looking to soften its image.
At 41, the Cuban American first-termer is savvy about social media, is conversant in rap music and pop culture, and has worried publicly about the difficulties of balancing work and fatherhood.
In a State of the Union first, he delivered versions of his party’s response in English and Spanish.
And he offered a particularly personal response, talking of his immigrant upbringing. In calling for changes to curb the growth of Medicare, Rubio invoked the care his father received through the program while dying of cancer and noted that his mother remains enrolled.
“Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare,” he said.
He added: “The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.”
The response to the State of the Union offered the possible 2016 presidential contender a moment of national exposure unlike any except his widely well-received speech at last year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa.
It also presented risks. Only responses that are awkward or shaky — notably Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s stilted 2009 speech from the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge — are widely remembered.