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OpEd: Is Marco Rubio The Republican Obama?

Give it a decade or two and the Obama legacy and mantle will be fought over like a quidditch ball. I give a student lecture each year about how Barack Obama is the Democratic Reagan, and just as Republicans have fought over the Reagan crown for decades, a similar fight will erupt among Democratic candidates in the 2020’s and presidential races beyond.

Now this is not because of Obama’s relatively modest accomplishments but because like Reagan, Obama fundamentally transformed the Democratic Party, the American political landscape and just about every political narrative in this country. After watching Marco Rubio deliver his presidential ambitions it was very clear that he is bringing something dynamic and almost Obama-esque to the 2016 race. The question is, can he get out of his own way enough to really compete?

Rubio’s comments about alienating allies, losing the American dream and opportunity for all (not to mention a dig at Hillary) could’ve been lifted straight from the Obama 2008 playbook.

The Obama-Rubio comparisons can’t be helped when you look at some surface similarities. Both entered the presidential race following a two-term highly polarizing president. Both were relatively inexperienced so spent their short Senate careers cramming to get into every foreign policy committee and discussion possible. Both are minorities that have been absolutely essential to their party’s success in presidential elections -- Cubans used to deliver Florida to the GOP and African Americans are vital to any Democrat anywhere.

Most importantly both entered their races as long shots to unseat a much better known and better funded scion of a recent American political dynasty. Obama ran a gritty, smart insurgent campaign and blew Hillary Clinton out of the water. Does Rubio have the ability to do that to Jeb Bush? His campaign launch was a good start.

Shockingly, Senator Marco Rubio did something that no other presidential candidate thus far has actually managed to do with any clarity or consistency — explain why they are running for president. Rubio put his argument in Obama-like terms. He’s the son of Cuban immigrants who struggled to make ends meet but had big dreams for their children.

Rubio is missing one thing that made Obama successful and might ultimately doom the senator from Florida: Rhetorical polish.

Rubio believes that he owes so much to a nation that gave him and his family so many opportunities that the best way to pay America back is to run it. He didn’t hide from his ethnicity and in fact embraced his heritage not just with speaking fluent Spanish but by contextualizing his experience as one of millions of (legal) immigrants who made America great.

In fact, Rubio managed to lay out some of his education policy, foreign policy plans and take a dig at Hillary Clinton all in less than 20 minutes. In fact, Rubio’s comments about alienating allies, losing the American dream and opportunity for all (not to mention a dig at Hillary) could’ve been lifted straight from the Obama 2008 playbook.

When he recounted his personal journey, going from his immigrant father standing behind a bar serving drinks to Rubio standing behind a podium announcing his bid for the presidency it was reminiscent of some of the loftier early Obama speeches. But Rubio is missing one thing that made Obama successful and might ultimately doom the senator from Florida: Rhetorical polish.

When Rubio became the butt of SNL jokes a few years ago for his rash of cotton mouth during his GOP rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union many of us assumed that was a one-time problem. It isn’t.

Marco Rubio really has trouble speaking publicly, and even in the safest of environments — who’s heckling or challenging you at a presidential launch? — he paused awkwardly, kept smacking his lips like he’d brushed his teeth with salted caramel and stumbled over his words not once, or twice but literally 6 or 7 times during his speech. This is no small stylistic problem.

After watching Marco Rubio deliver his presidential ambitions it was very clear that he is bringing something dynamic and almost Obama-esque to the 2016 race. The question is, can he get out of his own way enough to really compete?

Rubio’s only chance at the Republican Obama narrative, let alone the nomination will be if he can bring some inspiration to the table that Jeb Bush (or Scott Walker) lack. He has to rally the troops in saying “I’m the new face of the GOP and I’m not scared to say it” but if he can’t say it straight, or without mumbling his way through even the most effective of launches falls flat.

Right now Marco Rubio is mired amongst the second tier Republican candidates like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz. He seldom ranks in the double digit range of Paul, Walker or Bush.

Consequently there is still time for him to improve and make a run at the lead but he doesn’t have much time. Unlike Obama in 2008 the Republicans don’t want a long drawn out primary, so the push will be to vote the weakest link off the island as soon as possible. Rubio will need to do a better non-parody worthy job of making himself known if he has any chance of mimicking the campaign legacy of the man whose political legacy he hopes to erase.