In a stark display of the ideological divide between the parties, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., urged the president to rein in spending and reduce the size of government in order to grow the economy.
“Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity,” Rubio said in the Republican response to the State of the Union address.
“But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems,” Rubio said. “That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
A potential 2016 presidential candidate, Rubio appeared nervous during the English version of his speech and suffered from dry mouth. At one point, he leaned off camera to grab a water bottle. Rubio also delivered the response in Spanish.
Echoing Reagan, Rubio, who was in the running to be GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, argued that government is the problem, not the solution.
“The idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle-class taxpayers — that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried,” Rubio said.
In his speech, President Barack Obama tried to get ahead of that criticism, saying he did not want to expand the size of government, but wanted to make government set “smarter” priorities.
Rubio also defended the GOP leadership’s position on the sequester, which is set to go into effect on March 1. The president and Democrats have called for a package of revenue and spending cuts to delay more than $100 billion of those cuts, which both sides agree would hurt the economy and increase unemployment.
“We don’t have to raise taxes to avoid the president’s devastating cuts to our military,” Rubio said. “Republicans have passed a plan that replaces these cuts with responsible spending reforms.”
For economic growth, Rubio recommended simplifying the tax code, opening up more federal lands for oil and gas exploration and reducing energy regulations.
He took issue with accusations from the president and Democrats that the GOP is intransigent and resists tax increases only to protect the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor.
“There are valid reasons to be concerned about the president’s plan to grow our government,” Rubio said. “But any time anyone opposes the president’s agenda, he and his allies usually respond by falsely attacking their motives.”
Rubio said he believes tax increases will “hurt middle-class families” by making businesses cut back on salary increases, benefits and even overall employment positions.
“So Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors,” Rubio said.
On entitlements, Rubio said the programs need to be reformed to preserve them for future generations — an effort to address the charge from Democrats that the GOP is looking to drastically change the programs. He insisted that, because his own father and mother relied on Medicare, he did not want to undermine it for future generations. And he defended GOP efforts to rewrite the program.
“Republicans have offered a detailed and credible plan that helps save Medicare without hurting today’s retirees,” Rubio said. “Instead of playing politics with Medicare, when is the president going to offer his plan to save it? Tonight would have been a good time for him to do it.”
Other Senate Republicans questioned the costs of Obama’s proposals, but two former governors now serving in the Senate brought up education provisions as an example of programs worthy of review.
Asked about the cost of the various domestic proposals in the speech, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chuckled and said, “It sounded very expensive.” But he reserved serious judgement until he had a chance to review proposals in detail.
“I want to show the president the respect of studying what he proposed carefully” on education, he said.
North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven also said he’d give the president a chance. “I want to look at his program regarding colleges where he talks about ‘bang for the buck,’” Hoeven said. “I think our schools in North Dakota give an incredible bang for the buck, but the biggest concern I have is he talks about — you know — more spending, more government as a solution to get the economy going, and that’s not the right approach.”
Likewise, several on the GOP side said positive things about infrastructure spending while questioning the funding source.
“I like the idea of fixing bridges,” Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska said. “Beyond that — it was a political speech.”
Johanns, another former governor, didn’t think the math would add up on the spending side without piling on additional debt. “I just can’t imagine how he gets there with program after program after program that doesn’t add to the deficit,” he said. A central tenet of the president’s speech was that he would find a way to make sure his proposals would not add to the deficit.
“I personally think an investment in infrastructure does make a lot of sense and would help to create jobs and improve our economy” Republican Sen. Susan Collins said. “But the president’s speech was very light on details for even a program like that that I would be inclined to support.
“I thought that the president avoided a lot of the tough choices that are going to have to be made. I do agree with him that we cannot allow sequestration to go into effect,” the Maine Senator added. “So, I hope that his call for us to work together is one that will be followed up with action and that it wasn’t just words tonight.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.