Obama to Congress: ‘Give America a raise’ and restore American Dream

BY Simone Pathe  January 28, 2014 at 11:05 PM EST


In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama called on business leaders across the country to raise minimum wages. “Give America a raise,” he said. He also introduced plans for a new savings bond, a myRA, that will help workers contribute to their retirement savings.

During his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, President Obama lauded America’s people and its institutions for slashing the unemployment rate and the deficit and boosting the manufacturing and housing sectors.

America is better positioned than any other nation, he said. “That’s why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America.” But he put the onus on Congress and its individual members — will they “help or hinder” that progress?

He identified technological change and globalization as the causes of stymied opportunity, noting that its origins precede the Great Recession.

“The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

And he reaffirmed his commitment to achieve his priorities with or without Congress.

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

To get more Americans back to work, Vice President Joe Biden will oversee a reform of America’s training programs to try to match ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs. And to help out-of-work Americans find new opportunities, Mr. Obama wants to reform the unemployment benefit system to incentive returning to the workforce faster. “But first,” he continued, calling out the members before him in the imperative, “this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people.”

“But we know our opportunity agenda won’t be complete – and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise – unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American. ”

And that includes making the economy fair for women. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” Mr. Obama declared to resounding applause.

The president recalled his own appeal for raising the minimum wage in last year’s State of the Union, noting that many states and business leaders have followed his lead. And he alluded to Americans’ overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage, telling local leaders that they don’t need to wait for Congress.

He announced an executive order to raise the minimum wage for some federal contractors, but he admitted he’ll need the cooperation of Congress to reach more workers. “Give America a raise,” he said.

President Barack Obama called for a higher minimum wage for federal contract workers in his State of the Union address Tuesday. Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Wednesday, the president will direct the Treasury Department to begin a new savings bond — myRA — to help every American save for retirement.

Obama also called for closing tax loopholes and eliminating incentives for companies to ship jobs overseas.

And as he did last year, he heralded manufacturing hubs across the country, giving a shout out to Raleigh, N.C., and Youngstown, Ohio. He announced the creation of six additional sites and called on Congress to authorize even more.

“This is an edge America cannot surrender,” Mr. Obama declared, calling on Congress to reverse last year’s sequestration cuts to research and development.

Republican House Conference Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., delivered the official GOP rebuttal to Mr. Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday evening with an appeal to America’s equality of opportunity.

She invoked her own story of achievement as testament of how far potential can go in America — “a nation where a girl who worked at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru to help pay for college can be with you from the United States Capitol.”

She quickly diverged from Mr. Obama’s calls for legislative and executive action to combat inequality, instead identifying America’s homes and hearts, and not Capitol Hill or the Oval Office, as the catalysts for offering a better future for all Americans.

The Republican vision, she said, “champions free markets — and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.”

Her party’s mission, she declared, is to close the opportunity gap: “It’s the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be.” Mr. Obama, she suggested, has been preoccupied with income inequality while allowing the the opportunity gap to widen.

“Last month,” she continued, “more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the President’s policies are making people’s lives harder.”

But through lower taxes and cheaper energy and health care costs to help Americans take home more of their pay, McMorris Rodgers vowed, Republicans will be able to say that they closed the gap.

Original story:

Expect to hear quite a lot about inequality and economic mobility during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening. Much of that message, and many of the policies, will sound similar to those in last year’s State of the Union; it’s the strategy that may look a little different this year.

Mr. Obama is expected to announce an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for some federal contract workers, according to administration officials Tuesday morning. And he’ll promise to work with Congress on achieving the comprehensive $10.10 an hour minimum wage introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, last spring.

In his 2013 address, Mr. Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, indexed to inflation, an initiative that never got off the ground. Democrats began rallying around a minimum wage in the $10 range this winter.

A year ago, the president echoed many of the same economic themes he’ll invoke Tuesday night. Appealing to the middle class as the “engine of economic growth,” he lamented the stagnation of wages and incomes and the increase in corporate profits.

Upward mobility for those who work hard, he stressed, is a cornerstone of the American dream. “And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them,” he said in 2013.

The president also stressed the importance of putting people back to work and creating job training programs for young Americans last year. Championing manufacturing innovation institutes, like the one in Youngstown, Ohio, Mr. Obama asked Congress to help create more manufacturing hubs and make targeted investments in communities hardest hit by the recession.

The economic vision he laid out for the middle class in 2013 was colored by his emphasis on bipartisan tax reform to reduce the deficit, balance the budget and avoid the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, all of which required congressional action.

A 16-day government shutdown this fall put many of the president’s signature legislative issues, including his second-term emphasis on economic inequality, on the back burner.

He returned to mobility in December. Delivering a major economic speech in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, he committed to spending the last three years of his presidency tackling income inequality and stagnant upward mobility — the combined threat of which, he said, was greater than that of the deficit.

Not until earlier this month did President Obama follow up on last year’s State of the Union call for federal investment in hard-hit communities. On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, he announced his strategy for fighting income inequality in five “promise zones” across America. San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will receive federal funding for education, housing and crime-reduction programs.

But momentum around economic inequality has been building all year, with public acknowledgement that today’s minimum wage isn’t enough to survive. Earlier this year, fast food workers went on strike for higher wages, including Smithsonian employees in Washington who would benefit from the president’s executive order to raise the minimum wage.

Many state lawmakers are pushing for state-wide wage hikes, and minimum-wage workers in 13 states are already going to see a raise in 2014. Voters in SeaTac, Wash., and New Jersey approved ballot initiatives to increase their respective minimum wages earlier this year.

So while the president may not look forward to full congressional cooperation on his effort to raise the minimum wage or extend unemployment benefits, he does have the support of the majority of the American people at his back. Nearly three-quarters of Americans approve of raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center and USA Today. That public support enhances the president’s political capital to use executive action.

Whatever the president is able to achieve with Congress will be shaped by the impending midterm elections. Tuesday’s State of the Union underscores the populist message Democrats are hoping will win them seats in November.

But inequality and mobility have been rolling off the tongues of members of both parties, even though their respective solutions to tackling those issues differ greatly. Look for those differences to emerge in GOP responses from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who’s giving the official Republican rebuttal, and from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.