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What Will Rubio Say in Response to the SOTU?

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) addresses the final session of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida (REUTERS/Jason Reed).

I have no idea what Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will say on Tuesday. But here’s a good guess: opportunity matters. We need to build a strong middle class. People should be given every chance to climb the ladder of opportunity. They don’t need handouts but they do need a helping hand. And we can’t forget about the immigrants who have made this country great.

Here’s what he probably won’t say: it costs money to provide opportunity. If we want more early education programs, more health care and nutrition, better teachers in the classroom, and more Pell grants so low-income and immigrant kids can go to college, taxpayers will have to pony up. Instead, he’ll claim that his vision is consistent with a more limited and less costly government.

The fact is these two goals – providing opportunity and limiting costs – need not be incompatible. We can invest more in less advantaged kids and keep the cost down if we just face up to the need to reallocate resources from the affluent elderly to struggling younger families and their children. And yes, that means curbing the growth of Medicare and Social Security.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Rubio softened the Republican message while evading the hard policy questions. But getting the message right isn’t a bad start.

  • Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. She served as vice president and director of the Economic Studies program from 2003 to 2006. She has been a co-director with Ron Haskins of the Center on Children and Families. Prior to joining Brookings, Dr. Sawhill was a senior fellow at The Urban Institute. She served in the Clinton Administration as an Associate Director of OMB, where her responsibilities included all of the human resource programs of the federal government, accounting for one third of the federal budget.