WASHINGTON -- Likely Republican 2016 presidential candidates on Tuesday seemed to agree that President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address was off base. What they disagreed on was why. Responses issued by possible contenders after the hour-long speech ranged from civil, optimistic messages to angry visions of a world beset by terrorism.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave one of the sunnier Republican responses of the night -- sunnier, that is, for a put-down. "It's unfortunate President Obama wants to use the tax code to divide us -– instead of proposing reforms to create economic opportunity for every American," Bush said in a statement. "We can do better."
Mitt Romney, Bush's potential rival for the backing of the GOP establishment in 2016, also was measured in his response, calling the speech "disappointing" and "a missed opportunity to lead."
From there, the tenor of the rhetoric intensified. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was pithy and a little cutting in his statement, issued hours before Obama's address. Huckabee called the president's plan to cut taxes for the middle class "ridiculous," adding, "There are two things certain about the Obama administration: debt and taxes."
Two of the most ideological of the likely GOP candidates, Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.) both made sure to issue impassioned video statements, with Paul's lasting more than 12 minutes.
Paul railed against government seeking to impose its will on the public in the form of regulations, and said the "gifts offered by liberals have perpetuated poverty" by contributing to dependency on government. The scourge of dependency is a common conservative talking point, but Paul went farther than rivals in blaming big government, and not necessarily the president, for the nation's ills.
He also reached out to African-Americans, quoting civil rights leaders like Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said his visits to places like Ferguson, Missouri, Detroit, Atlanta and Chicago illustrated for him that there is "an undercurrent of unease" in the nation. The key to remedying this unease, Paul said, is a new way of thinking in Washington.
Cruz made his response personal with an attack on the president and a rebuke of Obama's time in office. Cruz opened his speech by saying Obama has "Ignored the many problems that America is facing," and "tried to paint a rosy picture." He blasted Obama for what he said was planning to "double down on the failed policies of the last six years … [and] all of the policies that are hurting hardworking Americans."
Cruz also touched on immigration reform and Obamacare, both likely to form major themes of a presidential campaign. Speaking of immigration reform, Cruz said he was struck that the president "did not mention his illegal and unconstitutional executive amnesty … issued in defiance of the voters, in defiance of the Constitution, and in defiance of the law." Cruz said that he and other Republicans have an obligation both to stop immigration reform and "to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare."
During the next few weeks, the Republican hopefuls will have ample opportunities to hone the messages they floated on Tuesday night, through meetings with donors, voters, and party kingpins. This weekend, more than a half-dozen likely 2016 GOP candidates will address conservative activists at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a gathering hosted by Iowa Rep. Steve King, a strident opponent of immigration reform.
Among the Republicans slated to attend are Cruz, Paul, Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio, former Texas Gov. Ricky Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.