Marco Rubio Questions Obama’s Faith in American Exceptionalism

The Florida senator is raising similar concerns about the president that Rudy Giuliani has. But he’s winning over supporters in the process.

CORAL GABLES, FL - NOVEMBER 02: (L-R) Republican nominee for Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio stands with his family, Anthony Rubio, Amanda Rubio, Daniella Rubio and Jeanette Rubio, who is holding Dominic Rubio during his 'Reclaim America Victory Celebration' at the Biltmore Hotel on November 2, 2010 in Coral Gables, Florida. Results show that Rubio has clinched the Florida Senate seat against his opponents, Independent candidate and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL). (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
National Journal
Feb. 24, 2015, 3 p.m.

MANCHESTER — Move over, Rudy Gi­uliani. Marco Ru­bio is vy­ing to be the polit­ic­al face of Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

In his first trip to New Hamp­shire this year, Ru­bio tested out his emer­ging pres­id­en­tial cam­paign theme: That the twin pil­lars that defined Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety for gen­er­a­tions — eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity and strong for­eign policy lead­er­ship — were be­ing un­der­mined by a pres­id­ent who be­lieves his own coun­try is no bet­ter than any oth­er demo­cracy. But un­like the former New York City may­or, Ru­bio re­ceived a warm re­cep­tion from the hun­dreds of com­munity lead­ers, con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists, and busi­ness of­fi­cials that showed up to hear him speak in fri­gid New Hamp­shire.

While the first-term sen­at­or from Flor­ida poin­tedly de­clined to cri­ti­cize Pres­id­ent Obama’s love of coun­try, he shared Gi­uliani’s over­arch­ing view that the pres­id­ent “views Amer­ica as the cause of these [for­eign policy] prob­lems, not the cure” to the myri­ad threats on the glob­al stage. And he framed the up­com­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion as a stark choice between ac­cept­ing Amer­ic­an de­cline or get­ting the coun­try back on track to a pos­ture of as­sert­ive glob­al lead­er­ship — at home and abroad. It’s the crux of Ru­bio’s mes­sage, which re­lies heav­ily on his own bio­graphy as the son of work­ing-class im­mig­rant par­ents who worked hard and were re­war­ded by Amer­ic­an mer­ito­cracy.

“My par­ents fully lived the Amer­ic­an dream … They were able to leave all four of their chil­dren off with a bet­ter life. What my par­ents did was done by mil­lions of people throughout 230-some years, and our coun­try is one of few places in the world where that story is pos­sible. It’s easy to take that for gran­ted, it’s easy to be­lieve this is the way it is every­where, but it isn’t,” Ru­bio said to a packed com­munity cen­ter Monday in Hol­lis, New Hamp­shire. “What we have in Amer­ica is spe­cial. It is unique. Not in the world today, it’s unique in hu­man his­tory. What we’re be­ing asked to de­cide now is wheth­er we want to con­tin­ue be­ing that kind of coun­try, or are we pre­pared to be­come just like every­one else. And we have reas­on to worry.”

Without rais­ing the specter of so­cial­ism, Ru­bio de­livered an equally hard-hit­ting mes­sage that Pres­id­ent Obama has broken from the bi­par­tis­an main­stream con­sensus in the coun­try — wheth­er it’s mid­dling sup­port for Is­rael, a zeal for ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders that test his con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity or em­bra­cing “rad­ic­al en­vir­on­ment­al policies” harm­ing the coun­try’s eco­nomy. And that he made his case with a smile — while draw­ing fre­quent ap­plause — shows how com­pel­ling his mes­sage could be in a pres­id­en­tial primary.

The New Hamp­shire jaunt con­cluded the end of a weeklong cam­paign-style swing, where Ru­bio vis­ited the four early primary vot­ing states, os­tens­ibly to test the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign wa­ters. But while Ru­bio fo­cused on sign­ing his new book “Amer­ic­an Dreams” in Iowa, South Car­o­lina and Nevada, he got his first real taste of re­lat­ing to skep­tic­al voters in New Hamp­shire.

About 100 people packed the Lawrence Barn Com­munity Cen­ter in Hol­lis dur­ing the middle of a Monday af­ter­noon to hear the sen­at­or speak. He re­ceived a warm re­cep­tion — sprinkled with ap­plause throughout — and fielded more than a dozen prob­ing ques­tions. The next morn­ing, he was the key­note speak­er at the New Hamp­shire In­sti­tute of Polit­ics’ Polit­ics and Eggs speak­er series — the first top 2016 con­tender to at­tend — where he was a fresh face to many of the cor­por­ate at­tendees in the crowd. Ru­bio, who is still an un­fa­mil­i­ar name to many New Hamp­shire voters, made a stark im­pres­sion by weav­ing in stor­ies of his fam­ily’s per­son­al chal­lenges with policies de­signed to en­cour­age eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity.

If he was us­ing this trip to gauge the re­cep­tion for a na­tion­al cam­paign, it would in­dic­ate that he’s got a cap­tive audi­ence.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen a polit­ic­al speech where I was moved to tears, ” said former New Hamp­shire House Speak­er Donna Sytek, a past party chair who at­ten­ded the In­sti­tute of Polit­ics break­fast. “When you have the policy chops and the fin­esse to con­nect emo­tion­ally with an audi­ence, it’s an im­press­ive com­bin­a­tion.”

In his speeches, he touted policies that in­cluded a more fam­ily-friendly tax code, im­prov­ing ac­cess to vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion, and sup­port­ing a broad­er war au­thor­iz­a­tion against ter­ror­ists than the pres­id­ent re­ques­ted. He man­aged to avoid the tech­nic­al le­gis­lat­ive talk that ham­strings many Con­gres­sion­al vet­er­ans. At the same time, he also dodged spe­cif­ic ques­tions, such as wheth­er he still sup­ports com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form (“I’m not go­ing to waste my time on things that can’t pass,” he told a crit­ic at the book sign­ing) and wheth­er he backed a clean bill fund­ing the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity (he blamed Demo­crats for the im­passe).

Des­pite Ru­bio’s po­ten­tial, he lags be­hind bet­ter-known com­pet­i­tion in a deep, crowded Re­pub­lic­an primary field. In the latest NBC/Mar­ist poll, he’s tied for sixth place, win­ning just sev­en per­cent of the Re­pub­lic­an vote. But he’s only 12 points be­hind lead­er Jeb Bush.

Ru­bio’s ad­visers are more fo­cused on the long game. As­sum­ing he runs, Ru­bio plans on ag­gress­ively con­test­ing New Hamp­shire; his staff thinks that Ru­bio’s con­ver­sa­tion­al speak­ing style will res­on­ate in a state where voters prize au­then­ti­city and cher­ish their role scru­tin­iz­ing politi­cians in town halls. And they think his abil­ity to re­late to voters’ eco­nom­ic struggles al­lows him to draw con­trasts with his long­time ally Bush, who lacks the per­son­al story to re­late to voters even as they share many of the same policy pref­er­ences. To one well-wish­er, he men­tioned that he was stay­ing at the in­ex­pens­ive Com­fort Inn when in town. In his speeches, he joked that he just fin­ished pay­ing off his massive stu­dent loan debt — thanks to pro­ceeds from his new book.

“The idea of an­oth­er Bush-Clin­ton elec­tion is kind of dis­ap­point­ing to our stu­dents,” said Chris Gal­dieri, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at Saint An­selm Col­lege who co­ordin­ated a meet­ing between Ru­bio and the school’s Col­lege Re­pub­lic­ans chapter be­fore the sen­at­or’s speech. “They’re look­ing for someone new.”

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