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Rubio’s Response: Risks and Rewards

When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

Ms. Clinton’s favorability is higher than those measured for other national figures:

46 – 41 percent for Vice President Joseph Biden;

25 – 29 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with 45 percent who don’t know enough about him to form an opinion;

20 – 42 percent for House Speaker John Boehner;

27 – 15 percent for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with 57 percent who don’t know enough;

34 – 36 percent for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan;

43 – 33 percent for new Secretary of State John Kerry;

14 – 18 percent for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, with 67 percent who don’t know enough about him.

Rubio’s numbers show that he is not well known nationally, but that those who do know enough about him to register an opinion tend to approve of him. This would have to be part of any of the senator’s calculations with regard to the State of the Union response. It is a difficult spot for any politician because the president is the leader of the free world conducting a tradition full of pomp and circumstance which puts this power dynamic on full display. It is also a long speech generally, which means those watching at home may be tired of listening to political speechmaking.

It can also be a difficult audience for the politician tasked with responding, because many viewers at home will not have had time to digest the speech and decide where exactly they come down on the policy facets of the address, and the response can be seen as abrupt. There is also the challenge of partisanship: the president will say a great many things that command broad public support, and will couch his policy prescriptions in aspirational tones meant to rise above the partisan fray (though President Obama is uniquely poor at this, given to taking cheap shots at both audience members and Republican figures working behind the scenes). As such, given the tension and rancor in Washington, there is always the danger of appearing ill-tempered and ungenerous at the wrong moment for the opposition politician who follows the president.

Yet there are also rewards to go along with the risks of appearing on such a stage. These include, prominently, the opportunity for a politician to introduce himself to the national electorate long before a debate-heavy primary process or general election in which both campaigns are inevitably jolted by an injection of negative advertising. The old adage about getting one chance to make a first impression is no less applicable to national politics. Letting your opponent define you can be among the most damaging mistakes to make in any election. The stakes are even higher for someone like Rubio, who tends to win over his audience–as the Quinnipiac poll shows.

Rubio’s summer appearance on “The Daily Show” was one such example of this, but so was his willingness to champion an immigration reform process vocally opposed by talk radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and then impress Limbaugh enough to win his praise after appearing on Limbaugh’s radio show. If Rubio is truly contemplating a run for president in 2016, he is unlikely to pass up an opportunity to introduce himself, on his own terms, to as many American voters as possible.


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