Barack Obama and Marco Rubio spoke to the nation this week – men whose lives have followed similarly brilliant paths but whose politics have been pickled in very different brines.
The juxtaposition of President Obama’s vision for the United States with that of Florida Senator Marco Rubio captures neatly the divide in our country. Obama, year after year, trots out top-down fixes for our nation’s problems. He wants the government to spearhead innovation, decide what employers will pay, reapportion healthcare spending, change the climate, divert investment into renewable energy, remake autos, override mortgage lending standards, overhaul college loans and on and on. He infantilizes the electorate. Mr. Rubio champions the strength of the individual instead of the collective to strive for a better life. He values exploiting the freedom to work hard and pursue one’s dreams as the bedrock of growth and success.
Their convictions are sincere, the product of each man’s upbringing and early life experience. Mr. Obama’s formative years spent as a community organizer inspired him to consider the poor or unemployed as abused by businesses that shuttered plants or raised rents – victims of an indifferent society. His decision to “organize black folks” as he explains in “Dreams from My Father,” was fed by a need to find his place in the civil rights movement, to prove himself “not alone in my particular struggles.”
Those struggles include uneasiness with being black. When in Kenya, he finally experiences the “freedom that comes from not feeling watched…here the world was black, and so you…could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.” His views of the United States and of Europe are tinged by antipathy to white colonialism. During his visit to Kenya he decides the white tourists are “an encroachment”; he resents that they exhibit “a confidence reserved for those born into imperial cultures.” Obama carries baggage.
Rubio grew up listening to his polio-stricken grandfather extol the virtues and values of the United States. Rubio recalls that like so many proud immigrants, the old man impressed upon his grandson that “there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American.” While Obama’s upbringing causes him to focus on America’s “darker periods,” Rubio’s relationship with his native land is celebratory. Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama declines to proclaim America’s exceptionalism while Rubio shouts it from the rooftops.
These are not insignificant differences; they color how these men want to govern. Obama claims the country has failed some communities, and he means to fix that. He has embraced policies like Obamacare, loosening welfare requirements and extending unemployment, possibly endangering our fiscal future. At the GOP convention last fall, Rubio describes these as “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”
In his State of the Union Address, Obama predictably hauled out several more government nostrums. For example, he proposeslifting the minimum wage. The push to raise the lowest-allowed hourly pay to $9 per hour from its current $7.25 rejects basic economics: raising the price of any commodity – including labor – drives down demand.
The proposal is reckless, jeopardizing our fragile employment situation by making it costlier for small businesses to take on hourly workers. It is especially risky since the strangling tendrils of Obamacare have make it comparatively attractive for small firms to hire people part-time so as to avoid taking on required healthcare costs. That may, after all, be the point.
Mr. Rubio did not directly address the call for a higher minimum wage. However, when Obama cites a minimum wage-earner making $14,500 per year--for 8-hour days--Rubio might have wistfully recalled his father’s 16-hour stints as a bartender, and his mom’s overnight shift at a K-Mart – all designed to offer their children opportunities they never had. In his DNA, hard work and sacrifice likely trump government mandates.
To boost jobs, Rubio advocates policies that would speed up the growth of the economy, arguing as he did in his response to SOTU that “economic growth is the best way to help the middle class,” and he advocates aggressive investment in our energy industries, better schools, and simplifying our tax code. He agrees with the president on the need for immigration reform. Where he disagrees is on raising taxes.
Reaching for higher growth is not easy; on the other hand, it is a path we have not traveled. The Financial Times calls for Obama to “rejuvenate US competitiveness.” But working with the business community to find free-market fixes has not been the focus of this White House. Campaigning against a backdrop of still-high unemployment, Obama told Americans “they’re worse off because others are better off. That people got rich by making others poor,” as Rubio charged at the convention. Obama is still riding that horse, arguing the task of making the “government work on behalf of the many, and not the few” is an “unfinished task.”
Both Rubio and Obama want to upgrade our school system. Here, too, though, they see through their inherited lenses. Obama wants to ramp up early childhood education, arguing that such programs save money down the road by boosting graduation rates and discouraging teen pregnancies and crime. An Economist article that examines the impact of preschool learning on later educational attainment in various countries reports the studies are inconclusive –except with “poor, neglectful or unstable families.” While Rubio might also like to spend money on early education, it is likely he would look to shoring up families – which he calls “the most important institution in society” -- as a better solution to the failures in poor and minority communities.
Not everyone will warm to Rubio’s push for “accountable, efficient and effective government that allows small and new businesses to create middle class jobs.” Not everyone will agree that our “free enterprise economy is the source of middle class prosperity.” It may take four more years of uncertainty and sluggishness to bring voters around. By that time, the inspiring Marco Rubio will be ready.