Marco Rubio's building a campaign for the future that echoes the messaging strategy of a winning candidate from the past who isn't popular in Republican circles: Barack Obama.
The first-term Florida senator is running as the embodiment of change against Bush, Clinton, and Paul political dynasties. His slogan — "new American century" — casts them as hopelessly retro. Remember "Change we can believe in?" Rubio does. Here's how he put it in his launch speech yesterday: "We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them."
It's not just his rhetoric — or even the way Rubio's lilt and cadence were reminiscent of Obama's seminal Jefferson-Jackson speech in Iowa in 2007 — that mimics Obama and draws a favorable contrast with Bush and Clinton, in particular. More tellingly, political operatives say, Rubio's narrative connects with his version of a young, improbable outsider storming the castles of the Washington political elite, a storyline that proved compelling for Obama.
"Senator Rubio has linked his life story to his political vision, which is straight out of the Obama playbook," says Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama's presidential campaigns and in the White House. "And despite being a senator, he is campaigning as a Washington outsider, as someone who can do things differently."
The cohesive narrative, smoothly spun by the telegenic Rubio, helps explain why some political prognosticators are convinced he's in the top tier of Republican candidates, despite anemic poll numbers. Many candidates never develop a message in which their personal story and political agenda reinforce each other. Rubio has that down early, just like Obama.
But that's why the parallel also carries peril for Rubio.
"Their backgrounds are probably more similar than Rubio would like to admit," said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina. "A lot of people on the Republican side don't like what they got with [Obama's] narrative. So, I think that's a challenge for him."
One difference, LaBolt said, is that Rubio isn't yet offering much new in the way of policy. The culling of his "new American century" slogan from a 20th-century Washington think tank started by Bill Kristol is a reminder that Rubio's foreign policy tracks with the neocon crowd that pushed for the now-unpopular decision to invade Iraq in 2003. On the domestic front, he wants to cut taxes for businesses and individuals — and offset the revenue by trimming spending for Medicare and Social Security.
"On the substance, it's not there. It's a bunch of warmed-over ideas that the Republican establishment has been attached to since before the Bush administration," LaBolt said.
Obama, too, leaned heavily on promising to deliver on priorities long held by his party's faithful. But he offered a sharp break from the post-9/11 bipartisan foreign policy orthodoxy that held it was better to fight in foreign lands than on American soil. And he promised to brick over Washington's revolving door in a way that was hard for a more entrenched insider to do.
Still, Republicans and Democrats alike say the similarities between Rubio's approach and Obama's are hard to ignore — even if the comparison only goes so far.
"It more speaks to a type of opportunity than a conscious or subliminal imitation," said Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican strategist who knows Rubio well. The "generational inflection point" is also reminiscent of Bill Clinton in 1992 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, Wilson said.
When Ted Kennedy delivered a forceful endorsement of Obama in 2008, he noted that his brother had been advised by Harry Truman to "be patient" — as some had cautioned Obama, too. JFK's answer: "It's time for a new generation of leadership."
Rubio made a similar play on Monday.
"I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot," he said. "Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as president."
There are a lot of points of comparison between Obama in 2008 and Rubio in 2016: Both launched presidential campaigns as first-term senators, both are among the small handful of nonwhite candidates to run for the presidency, both came from humble roots, both have parents born outside the US, and both are extraordinarily gifted speakers.
It's too facile, though, to say that Rubio is the Republican version of Obama, Wilson said.
"There's sort of a false comparison between Marco and Obama that's been made," he said. He argues that Rubio's experience as a local official and as a state House speaker in a large state give him political acumen that Obama lacked going into the presidency.
Democrats, too, bristle at the comparison. But one thing's for sure: Rubio's running like it's 2008.
In a Monday speech full of twofers — overt shots at Clinton that also hit Bush — perhaps the most Obama-esque was the first and least direct attack. "When they were young, my parents had big dreams for themselves," Rubio said. "But because they were not born into wealth or power, their future was destined to be defined by their past." They gave all of their children "a better life than their own," Rubio said, casting himself, like Obama, as a human symbol of realized opportunity and upward mobility, and gently contrasting with Clinton and Bush dynasties.
Republican strategists Stuart Stevens said the generational line of attack is helpful for Republicans.
"Has a president been followed by an older generation of same party?" Stevens asked rhetorically. "It could happen, but change is usually new party or new generation or both."