WASHINGTON - Republicans dismissed President Barack Obama's State of the Union address as nothing more than big government spending and more tax increases. But a brief sip of water may have gotten more immediate attention than any policy ideas.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's mid-speech swig from a small Poland Spring water bottle during his GOP response generated instant reaction in social media circles and on cable television, even as Republicans offered fresh appeals on the economy and promises to rein in federal spending.
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Rubio appeared to wipe away sweat during his rebuttal from the Speaker's conference room in the U.S. Capitol. At one point he stretched out his left hand, grabbed a small plastic water bottle and took a brief swig of water. As the water break gained notice online, Rubio sent a photo of the bottle from his Twitter account.
In his GOP address, Rubio urged Obama to "abandon his obsession with raising taxes" and said the president had shifted the nation away from free-market economic principles that had helped middle-class families achieve prosperity.
"Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems," Rubio said.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in a separate tea party response, said both parties had failed voters by driving up trillion-dollar deficits. "Washington acts in a way that your family never could — they spend money they do not have, they borrow from future generations, and then they blame each other for never fixing the problem," Paul said.
Republicans sought to characterize Obama as overly reliant on government, even as the president made his case to the nation that he could generate new jobs without raising the federal deficit. Defending his policies against GOP critics, Obama said the nation needed a "smarter government" instead of a bigger one and pledged to boost the minimum wage and increase federal spending to fix roads and bridges.
Both Obama's address to Congress and the Republican responses around the Capitol sought to position each party as the champion of average Americans in a nation still grappling with high unemployment and a slow economic recovery. Republicans noted that the nation's jobless rate ticked up to 7.9 percent in January and the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the final months of 2012.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama offered the American people "little more than more of the same 'stimulus' policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work. We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes."
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman accused Obama of promoting "the same big-government policies that have failed to get our economy up and running again."
Paul, a tea party favorite, said both parties had been guilty of "protecting their sacred cows" and engaging in "backroom deals in which everyone up here wins but every taxpayer loses." He said he would propose to balance the budget in five years and urged lawmakers to return to their duty of passing budgets. If not, Paul said, voters should "sweep the place clean. Limit their terms and send them home."
Rubio, a rising star in the Republican party and a potential 2016 presidential contender, pointed to his Miami roots to address Obama's frequent portrayal of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — and his party — as only caring about the wealthiest Americans. Rubio said he still lived in the "same working-class neighborhood I grew up in" and his neighbors "aren't millionaires" but retirees, workers and immigrants.
"His favorite attack of all is that those who don't agree with him — that we only care about rich people," Rubio said.
Rubio pre-recorded his speech in Spanish for Spanish-language networks, a nod to Republicans who have said that they must do more to address their deficit with Hispanic voters. Obama won 71 percent of Hispanics last year against Romney, prompting concerns about the party's ability to compete with Democrats in future elections.