GOP JFK?

01.23.15 10:45 AM ET

Rubio 2016 is Real, and It’s Spectacular

Marco Rubio says he isn’t sure if he’ll be running for president or another term in the Senate in 2016. Either way, he’ll be someone to watch for years to come.

A stack of books on a side table, complimentary to reporters, heralds another step in Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s emerging presidential campaign. He’s in Washington promoting American Dreams, his new book, which lays out his proposals for equal opportunity, equal dignity, and equal work.

There’s a chapter on “Making College a Good Investment Again,” and another on “Economic Security in an Insecure Time.” The book jacket shows a smiling Rubio, sleeves rolled up, hands on hips, ready to go to work. If you took off the cover picture, much of the language inside the book could come from Senator Warren and Secretary Clinton, a reporter observes, asking Rubio, “Aren’t you arguing about an issue that has generally been considered Democratic turf?”

So much of the recovery has gone to such a small segment of the population, people at the “upper echelon”, Rubio calls them. “The answer is not a series of tax increases to redistribute wealth,” and more spending programs, which is how he describes President Obama’s proposals in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech.

It’s good there’s a conversation, he says, “It’s the age old debate between free enterprise and a more activist government.” In that debate, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is firmly on the free enterprise side, but he’s not an anti-government hardliner. “I could never have gone to college if not for a Pell Grant,” he says in his opening remarks at the Wednesday breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Like a lot of young people today, Rubio had student loans to pay, joking that his wife wondered whom this “Sallie Mae” was taking so much money out of his paycheck. He credits the “quality of opportunity” that America gave him as the son of a bartender, and wonders why millions today don’t have that same opportunity.

“Why are so many people shut out of this prosperity?” He says it’s tempting to blame one politician or one party, but life is more complicated and expensive than it was when his parents came to the U.S. in 1956. There were no cell phone bills then, and ESPN on cable wasn’t mandatory like it is for him today, he says with a laugh. His family only had one car, and his mother never drove. These are among the forces that conspire against middle-class life in America, he says.

And this is what politicians think about when they’re thinking about running for president. Rubio is one of his party’s stars, a freshman senator seen as presidential timbre from day one.

How will he reconcile a possible presidential run with a senate race since he’s up in 2016 and Florida law prohibits running for both offices at once? “If I decide I want to be president of the United States that’s what I will run for,” he replies, “not with the intent of looking for a Plan B if it doesn’t work out.” Asked for his timetable, he says, “Soon,” since it takes time to mount a credible presidential campaign.

Howver, ABC reports Rubio has told his top aides to proceed as if he is running for president. He'll be skipping senate votes next week to fundraise in California, and his book tour will take him to all the key primary states.

What about his mentor, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush? The assumption has been that Rubio won’t run if Bush does, but both men insist their decision will be made independently of the other.

When a reporter asks if he has thought about the challenges of raising his four young children in the White House, instead of brushing aside the question, Rubio warms to it, saying, “My family is prepared to support whatever I decide.” Being president means you “live above the shop, you see your family,” even though it’s a “very demanding job, I have no illusions about that.”

He goes on to say he had recently visited the Kennedy Library, and was captivated by how President Kennedy had been able to grow and evolve between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis. JFK was a junior senator when he ran for president in 1960. It’s easy to imagine Rubio gaining inspiration from the life and legend of JFK, wanting to see how far his ambition, his agile mind and his easy conversational style can take him in the biggest leagues of politics.

The decision before him, he says, comes down to which is the better path from which to serve: The Senate where his party holds the majority, or the presidency, where victory would come at a higher price. “Both have their own set of opportunities that are alluring,” he says.

Rubio has already had a meteoric rise in politics. He was Speaker of the Florida Assembly and still in his thirties when he took the leap to run for a U.S. senate seat that had abruptly become available when incumbent Republican Mel Martinez resigned. Accustomed to being pegged for greater things, Rubio says that in deciding between his Senate seat and a run for president, he faces “a decision that few people are asked to make.”

A reporter suggests a possible alternative scenario, should the presidency not work out: Rubio, who is just 43, could come back to Florida and run for governor, and get that executive experience that voters look for in a presidential candidate.

“I don’t have a ten-year plan,” Rubio replies, bristling a bit. “I don’t think in those terms.” He recounts his experience as speaker in the Florida House, the pinnacle of a state legislator’s career, status that said he had done everything possible within the system. There were no apparent openings for a restless public servant when Martinez stepped down well before his six-year term was up, citing personal reasons.

“Opportunities present themselves,” Rubio says, noting that he trailed in the polls when he first jumped into the race. “I deal with openings as they emerge.” And in a presidential field that’s getting crowded, there’s still an opening for someone as engaging as Rubio if he can translate his personal story into policy prescriptions that are relevant to the voters.