By Greg Botelho, CNN
(CNN) — Claiming Barack Obama thinks a “free enterprise economy” is “the cause of our problems” — not, as he sees it, the solution — Sen. Marco Rubio argued Tuesday that the president’s proposals would hurt middle class citizens more than help them.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” the Florida Republican said in his rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
The 35-year-old lawmaker, viewed as a possible presidential candidate and declared by Time magazine as “The Republican Savior,” was tapped to give his party’s response to the speech.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, also rebutted Obama on behalf of the conservative tea party caucus.
Rubio largely kept to his prepared remarks, except when he abruptly stopped talking about halfway through to reach for a drink of water.
The son of Cuban immigrants referred emotively to his personal story and that of his family, though his policy criticisms and proposals were largely in line with prevailing mainstream and, in some cases, conservative Republican thinking.
On immigration, for instance — on which Rubio has been one of his party’s most outspoken proponents of efforts to “modernize” the current system — he didn’t mention his past support of a route to citizenship for undocumented immigrants now in the United States.
The senator did generally advocate “a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally.” But he added that first, “we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
Speaking about gun control measures — one of the most emotional parts of Obama’s State of the Union speech — Rubio said he was for “effectively” dealing with such violence, then added, “But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”
He sharply criticized Obama on many fronts.
The president, Rubio claimed, had unfairly cast Republicans as opposing the environment and seniors, and only caring about rich people.
He contended that it was Obama who — if his plans are enacted — would hurt the majority of Americans by preventing the economy from growing.
“The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families,” Rubio said, referring to Obama. “It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.”
His remarks often reflected the sharp partisan divide on budgetary matters.
Top Democrats, including Obama, have consistently said that increased government revenues should be paired with spending cuts to bring down the deficit.
Congress already raised tax rates on top income earners as part an agreement in January to avert the worst aspects of the so-called fiscal cliff. And now, Obama and Democrats want to eliminate some tax breaks and loopholes to further raise revenue.
Republican leaders have sought to reduce the size of government and, therefore, generally oppose any increase in tax revenue.
They have called for aggressive spending cuts and steps to overhaul entitlement programs, while rejecting any new attempts to increase revenue as part of further steps to reduce the deficit.
Obama’s “solution to virtually problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more,” Rubio said.
The president did, in fact, propose several new programs aimed at bolstering the economy, though he insisted they wouldn’t add to the deficit.
“The idea that more taxes and more government spending is the way to help hardworking middle-class taxpayers, that’s an old idea that has failed every time it’s been tried,” Rubio said. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”
Rubio said he agreed with Obama on lowering the corporate tax rate, but didn’t mention the president’s support for closing tax loopholes that inordinately benefit the rich.
Rubio backed school choice for all parents, and said that student financial aid should evolve to help more “non-traditional students.”
On energy policy, the senator derided Obama’s administration for “wasting … taxpayer money on so-called clean energy ventures like Solyndra.” Rubio favors “reform” of energy regulations and opening up “more federal lands for safe and responsible (oil and gas) exploration” — both common Republican themes.
He spoke, too, of Medicare — the government-run health insurance program for seniors — arguing that changes are needed for it to continue. The president suggested he’d support “modest reform” of this entitlement program, but Rubio said Obama does not go far enough.
“I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother,” he said. “But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it.”
Near the end of his speech, Rubio prayed that Democrats and Republicans “can come together to solve our problems” — contending that, if they don’t, the consequences will be stark.
“If we can get our economy healthy again, our children will be the most prosperous Americans ever,” Rubio said. “And if we do not, we will forever be known as the generation responsible for America’s decline.”