WINTER PARK — For as much as they disagree on policy, Barack Obama and Marco Rubio have an awful lot in common.
Both rose from obscurity to become inspirational national superstars in their parties. Both have stories that make people feel good about America: the son of Cuban immigrants, a Kmart stock clerk mother and bartender father, elected to the U.S. Senate; a black man, son of a single mother, elected president of the United States.
And each can exhilarate a crowd like few other American politicians. Imagine Obama, 50, and Rubio, 41, in a debate.
In a sense, they had one Thursday as the president held a campaign rally laying out the stakes of the election at Rollins College in Winter Park, just hours after Rubio did the same in nearby Orlando as a surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"Never before in my lifetime has the choice been so dramatic, has the difference been so clear," Rubio told 200 enthusiastic Republicans at the Harbco construction firm.
"Are we prepared to go back to the ways of the old world, to a time when government controlled every aspect of your life, what you can make, where you could work, what you could do with the money you made, and how you had to help other people?" Rubio said. "That's the road Barack Obama advocates for us. Whether he knows it or not, the road he's laid before us is one of poverty and no prosperity. Things will never get better under Barack Obama because he doesn't understand what made us great."
Ten miles away in a gymnasium filled with 2,400 supporters, the president agreed this election presents a stark choice.
"When you walk into that voting booth, it won't just be for next year or the year after that. You'll be making decisions that will have an impact on our kids and our grandkids for years to come, for decades to come,'' Obama said, suggesting that the last election was about restoring the basic promise of America.
"It says that if you work hard, your work should be rewarded. It's a deal that says if you put in enough effort, you should be able to find a job that pays the bills. You should be able to afford a job — you should be able to afford a home that you call your own. You should be able to count on health care if you get sick, and retire with dignity and respect," he said. "And most of all, you should be able to give your kids an education that allows them to dream even bigger than you did and do even better than you ever imagined."
What went wrong with the economy?
Rubio said government grew too large, spent too much and enacted too many regulations.
The Bush tax cuts helped grow the economy, Rubio said, but "Republicans and Democrats took that money to grow our government and the result was an economic disaster. That was the America that Barack Obama inherited in 2008 — and then he made it worse. . . . Instead of pulling back from those policies he doubled down. He said forget that we wasted all this money in government, let's spend more. Let's borrow $800 billion to 'stimulate' the economy. The only thing it stimulated was the debt."
Obama: "We've made significant strides on a whole range of areas. But what's standing in our way still is our politics. What's standing in our way is a group of folks in Washington with some uncompromising views, folks who believe that the only way we can get back on track is to go back to the same top-down economics that got us into this mess in the first place."
Rubio: "Mitt Romney understands free enterprise, he has worked in it. He has seen companies succeed and he has seen them fail, too. He knows what people think about when they invest their money. Barack Obama doesn't believe in free enterprise."
Obama took the opportunity to attack Romney's tax plan, citing a new analysis from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center that concluded it would lead to tax increases on most Americans and tax cuts for the wealthiest.
"They found that folks making more than $3 million a year, the top one-tenth of 1 percent, would get a tax cut under Mr. Romney's plan of almost a quarter of a million dollars,'' the president said to boos, noting that middle-class families would see tax increases of up to $2,000.
"I want everybody to understand here — he's not asking you to pay an extra $2,000 to reduce our deficit; he's not asking you to pay an additional $2,000 to help care for our seniors; he's not asking you to pay an additional $2,000 in order to rebuild America or to fight a war," he said. "He's asking you to pay more so that people like him can pay less, so that people like me pay less."
The Romney campaign dismissed the study as a biased joke, saying that, among other things, it failed to factor in the job growth that would result from lower rates on income and corporate taxes. Rubio did not address it specifically in Orlando, but suggested Obama's rhetoric is predictable.
The president can't run on his record, Rubio said, so he is "dividing the American people against each other — rich against poor, men against women, red state versus blue state, haves versus have-nots. … It's gone from hope and change to divide and conquer."
There was one area where the president and Florida's junior senator and prospective vice presidential nominee agreed Thursday: the character of the American people.
Obama: "Over the last 3½ years, I have taken strength from you, the American people. Because I've seen your resilience, I've seen folks get knocked down and get right back up. You are tougher than tough times. And that is the reason why we've been able to see 4.5 million jobs created. That's why we've been able to see the housing market just barely, slowly start to tick back up. That's the reason that we've seen the auto industry come all the way back. It's because of you"
Rubio: "The fact that our economy is even growing at all is a miracle — a testament to the resilience of the American people, a testament to you, a testament to businesses like this (the construction firm where he was speaking). Just imagine if we had a government and, more importantly, a president, who understood the essence of our greatness, believed in it, and supported it."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]