Most politicians would dream to have the attributes of Barack Obama that made him so popular with the public that he got elected president twice. He was young, charismatic, inspiring, and articulate (just ask Joe Biden).
Jeb Bush seems to understand that. In July, he praised Obama’s political skills, saying, “Well, if I could speak like Barack Obama, if I could light up a room like he does—you know, charisma’s not a bad thing. It’s a pretty effective tool to take to be able to take the message to a broader audience. And he is gifted beyond belief in that regard.”
Does the Republican field have a candidate like Obama this year? According to a “leaked” Jeb Bush presentation to donors, they do. “Marco is a GOP Obama,” the presentation reads on page 21.
Indeed, Rubio shares a lot of those same political skills with Obama. He’s a great speaker who is in command even under fire, as his takedown of Bush at the CNBC debate showed. He’s inspiring, with his American Dream story of escaping tyranny and bootstrapping. He’s three years younger than Obama was when the latter was inaugurated, and he’s hip with pop culture, another point that makes Obama seem “cool.”
Rubio Isn’t Impressed
Where did Bush get the idea to call Rubio a GOP Obama? It could have been from John McWhorter’s 2010 The New Republic article. He wrote, “Rubio is – let’s face it – a better Obama in his way.” Or it could have been from Rubio’s June 2012 appearance on “Meet the Press,” when David Gregory said, “You know, there’s so many similarities between you and President Obama in terms of your political rise.”
It wouldn’t have been hard to think of the comparison. In fact, these qualities of Rubio have been so widely noted that Jamie Fuller joked in New York Magazine’s “Daily Intelligencer” that he might as well be called Marco “Young Ambitious Charismatic” Rubio.
Of course, Bush wasn’t trying to compliment Rubio, and Rubio “certainly wouldn’t take it as [a compliment,” he told CBS News. But the fact remains: Obama won twice. In Bush’s campaign ad, “Why I’m Running,” Rubio’s one-time mentor says, “What we have to stop doing is saying how angry we are about it and win the election so we can fix it.”
Experience Versus Projection
Bush would have you think about how Rubio, like Obama, is inexperienced. The two of them “have strikingly similar profiles”; both “had few legislative accomplishments, and haven’t shown much interest in the process of advancing legislation and getting results.” His lack of accomplishments “negat[es] [a] hit against Hillary Clinton.” Bush, it seems, wants to run a campaign contrasting his proven track record against Hillary’s perceived lack of achievements.
Remember how well that worked in 2008? “Senator Obama does not have the experience and the knowledge and clearly the judgment, my friends,” McCain said. Obama’s response that he was ready to be president due to his experience managing a campaign was thought “laughable” by the McCain campaign, but in the end Obama was the one laughing.
Now we are in another year when the electorate isn’t too interested in experience. According to a Pew poll, 65 percent of Americans and 55 percent of all voters surveyed in September 2015 think “new ideas and a different approach” are more important than “experience and a proven record.”
Rubio’s argument is similar to Obama’s 2008 argument, while not using the same discredited language. “Yesterday is over,” Rubio said in response to Clinton’s campaign announcement. “Faced with a rapidly changing and uncertain world, our generation rose to face the challenges of our time.” In an Uber world, a young guy with the second-highest number of Twitter followers among GOP candidates who is criticized as “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator” isn’t exactly a bad thing.
Rocking Social Media
Obama was the first president of the social media age. Some of his and his team’s antics have thoroughly annoyed conservatives—from tweeting memes of pajama-clad losers to posting selfies and going to war with hashtags—but he did accomplish the most important thing for a politician: winning.
The McCain campaign released an ad in 2008 calling Obama a celebrity. American Crossroads followed suit in 2012, including a clip of Obama “slow jamming the news” on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” For that—and other pop media appearances, YouTube interviews, and Funny or Die collaborations—Obama was mocked as unserious.
But soon enough, slow jamming the news became an ordinary political promo. When Mitt Romney was promoting his rehabilitation tour and the documentary “Mitt,” he went on Fallon’s show and slow jammed. Jeb Bush started his campaign with a slow jam on Fallon, jamming one line in Spanish, and Chris Christie did it in 2013.
Politicians have been pandering to TV viewers for as long as the medium has existed. Richard Nixon did it on “Laugh In,” and Bill Clinton played sax on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” Obama has just extended his scope to the next frontier. The Internet is a new weapon, and Democrats aren’t going to ignore it even if Republicans do. Conservatives unilaterally disarm at their own expense.
Well-Briefed on Pop Culture
It’s not just that Obama uses new media and pop media well. He also seems in touch with youth culture and “cool”—at least for a politician, anyway. He talked about meeting Kanye West on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” and his relationship with Jay-Z, which he joked about at the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner, is well-reported. Contrast that with Mike Huckabee’s criticisms of Beyoncé for her dancing and of the Obamas for letting their children listen to Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and it’s clear whom young voters would rather have a beer with.
I’m not saying, in the best possible world, that presidential campaigns should be popularity contests. But in the world we live in, there is an element of that in politics. Nor will a young, pop culture-savvy Republican win the youth vote just because he is with it. But, all things being equal, it does give such a Republican better chances than similarly situated competitors.
When TMZ caught Rubio at the airport, they seemed to be surprised about his knowledge of hip hop. “Wow. Can I just say, ‘His stock has just gone’ [draws an arrow pointing up],” TMZ founder Harvey Levin said regarding Rubio’s ode to Tupac. “I… I totally agree,” said another employee.
Fusion’s Brett LoGiurato wrote that Rubio “might actually have a chance with young voters” because he was outperforming other GOP candidates in that respect in a spring Quinnipiac poll. A majority of 18-34-year-olds who have made up their minds view Rubio favorably. However, those numbers are far from solid, as 44 percent didn’t have an opinion of him.
A Lack of Experience Isn’t that Bad
Having argued that Rubio would make a competitive presidential candidate, the next question is whether President Rubio’s inexperience would hurt him. In fact, it shouldn’t prevent him from advancing a conservative agenda. President Obama’s problem is not his inexperience, it is his ideology.
Obama’s lack of accomplishment in Senate didn’t prevent him from getting Obamacare passed and a host of other liberal legislation. While he hasn’t worked well with the Republican Congress, that is more because of his personal reluctance to compromise or schmooze lawmakers.
Nor have his perceived failings on foreign policy been the result of lack of experience as much as they have been due to his views. That Obama has sometimes been reluctant to advance American interests authoritatively with overseas military actions, as his critics maintain, is because he takes a more constrained view of America’s role in the world than other presidents before him.
Rubio isn’t lacking foreign policy experience compared to his opponents. He has more experience dealing with foreign affairs as a national-level politician than does all but one of the senators running. Serving on the Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio has made foreign policy a focus. Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, analyzed an essay by Rubio on Russian policy and concluded, “It suggests that he not only knows something about foreign policy, but he’s also savvy to the politics of foreign policy.” He also noted that Rubio is more comfortable talking about foreign policy than the rest of the GOP field is.
A Republican Obama is just what the Grand Old Party needs to face a changing electorate. Just like how basketball teams tried for years to foster “the next Jordan,” a superstar politician in a GOP jersey could be a big help to the team. However, most of “the next Jordans” ended up underperforming such sky-high expectations. If there is one thing the next Obama must lack, it is Obama’s narcissism. One must have a good deal of humility to keep grounded in the face of so much praise.