In a symbolic trip the day after his annual State of the Union address, Obama sought to raise momentum for proposals he announced to lift workers’ incomes and make it easier for Americans to put money away for retirement.
The trip is also aimed at helping Democrats win seats in November’s congressional elections by focusing on a popular theme that touches on the economy and income inequality.
Obama announced on Tuesday he would sign an executive order lifting the minimum wage for workers with new federal contracts to $10.10 and urged Congress to do the same for Americans nationwide. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Although Obama’s action will only affect a relatively small number of workers, it drew praise from members of his Democratic Party, many of whom were discouraged by the flawed rollout of his signature healthcare reform law last autumn.
“The increase in the minimum wage is a very powerful message. It resonates across the country,” said Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts. “I think this will really give some wind to this year’s Obama agenda.”
Republicans oppose a broad increase in the minimum wage, saying it could harm the economy. “When you raise the cost of something, you get less of it,” House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner told a news conference on Tuesday.
After a year in which Obama’s policy proposals failed to gain traction in a divided Congress, the president said he would opt for executive actions if his initiatives were stymied by Republicans who control the House of Representatives.
Vice-president Joe Biden, however, said in television interviews on Wednesday that the president did want to work with Congress and was confident of cooperation in some key areas, including reform of immigration policy.
“I think you’re going to see much more cooperation with Congress this year than you have the past five years,” Biden told NBC’s “Today” program.
“We’re ready to work with the Congress,” he said. The legislature’s low public approval rate for the legislature, many of whose members face elections in November, would help motivate them to action, he said.
CHAMPIONING THE MIDDLE CLASS
Obama plans to highlight his proposals on a visit on Wednesday to a Costco bulk retail store in Lanham, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington.
“Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover,” Obama said in his speech.
The White House says Costco and similar businesses have supported previous increases to the minimum wage because higher earnings for employees build a stronger work force and increase morale and profitability over the long run.
Democrats are trying to reinforce the image of Obama, whose poll numbers are low, as a hero of the middle class, much as he presented himself during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
“Raising the minimum wage is not just a matter of fairness or a means of combating inequality; it is also needed to jumpstart our economy,” the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, said in a statement.
“Increasing the minimum wage would put money in the pockets of workers, who are likely to spend that money immediately at businesses in their communities.”
Obama will also promote his proposal to create a program to help Americans who do not have traditional IRAs or 401K retirement accounts to save money for retirement.
Later in the day he will travel to a U.S. Steel plant in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, where he will discuss his savings proposals. Administration officials said the plant was an example of a place that offered very good retirement accounts.
Obama said in his speech he would direct the Treasury Department to create a savings bond-like instrument called MyRA, which would have a guaranteed return without risk of losing money.