It’s already been branded “the gulp heard ‘round the world.” Midway through the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Florida senator Marco Rubio awkwardly leaned over, grabbed a small water bottle from off-camera, and took a drink, all while barely breaking eye contact with the viewer. It was the culmination of a performance in which the rising star and potential 2016 presidential candidate was just a bit off. His gestures were too big. He didn’t seem to be looking directly into the camera. His voice was thin. He looked young. Voters aren’t disembodied points of perfect rationality—they’re human, and can’t help but judge candidates on insubstantial things. Rubio didn’t show the gravitas and poise we expect from a president. “God has a funny way of reminding us we’re human,” said Rubio of the gulp, but candidates must humanize themselves in the right way. Obama is a master of this—his visible love for his family and his sense of humor may do more for his support among young people than his policies.
Rubio’s speech was also imperfect, though its chief flaw was not what he said, but what he didn’t say. Rubio is a key figure in shaping the coming immigration reform. He’s also the son of immigrants. Obama said surprisingly little about immigration reform in his address, running bloodlessly through some of the technical and security criteria that would be important. Rubio thus had a tremendous opportunity. He could have framed the entire immigration discussion in personal and emotionally appealing terms. He did this expertly at last year’s Republican National Convention, telling the audience of how his mother’s parents “went to bed hungry so their children wouldn’t,” of how his grandfather believed that “there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American,” and of how his father, a bartender, worked sixteen-hour days and “stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.” Telling this story would have let the GOP take the lead on immigration while projecting a positive image. It also would have further boosted Rubio’s popular appeal. Instead, Rubio devoted a few short sentences to immigration, almost all of them boilerplate, and then moved on to other subjects. Obama can now set the tone on immigration as he pleases.