In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama quoted JFK, noting that Americans are “partners in progress” and that “the state of the Union is stronger.” This was a drastic departure from his inaugural address just weeks prior, in which the President presented a blueprint for a severely liberal political agenda that left the Democratic base enthusiastically enamored and Republicans equally despondent. As Democrat-turned Republican Artur Davis noted in his column two weeks ago, it was the strongest indicator yet that America is “practicing equal but separate”: The differences between Americans, made particularly conspicuous in an increasingly vitriolic politics, are now arguably greater than the common bonds that unite us.
This sharp contrast in worldviews was made even more apparent by the remainder of the President’s relatively demure speech. He cited a cavalclade of facts and figures to make his case – modest job growth, a slight uptick in American car purchases, and a slight decrease in imported oil – none of which really say much, if anything, about the overall health of the American economy. He cited the need for deficit-nuetral economic growth and gave lip service to entitlement reform and immigration reform, but offered very few specifics as to how to accomplish these tasks. When he did, the proposals were so miniscule that many wondered if they were even worth mentioning, except to impress some bipartisan credentials upon a captive audience. Certainly, it should not be surprising to anyone, regardless of political worldview, that the most animated moments of the address came as the President proposed new gun control measures; in a speech marked by tepidity, an actual policy prescription that tugs at the nation’s heartstrings was bound to elicit applause.
Despite some drastic tonal and epistemic differences, Sen. Marco Rubio’s response to the State of the Union also subtly affirmed Davis’ “equal but separate” thesis. President Obama claimed that the Union was stronger only to demonstrate in his speech that this is, in fact, not so. Sen. Rubio began his speech with a prayer of Thanksgiving to God and an intensely personal defense of conservative values – followed by nuanced policy prescriptions that seemed more pragmatic than ideological. It was as if these two men were speaking to completely different audiences, even as Americans of all and no political persuasions were watching both speeches. Even when the speeches seemingly converged (education, immigration, economic growth), the proposed solutions were often drastically different. Whereas Obama stressed early childhood education, Rubio stressed trade and vocational schools; one emphasized the need for an immigration system that includes a pathway to citizenship, while the other voiced a more market-based approach to the issue. The President proposed raising the minimum wage, while Senator Rubio advocated lowering the corporate tax rate.
If Americans view these two speeches as an intellectual boxing match between two competing political paradigms, then Sen. Rubio did indeed perform a service for conservatives with his response (and obviously, reaching for a water bottle is hardly a disqualifier in such a contest). That said, in an America that is culturally and politically “equal but separate,” one wonders if anyone really cares about the outcome anyway.
Andy Kirchoff is the Illinois Leader of Cafe con Leche Republicans.