Delivering a speech that sounded like a campaign sales blitz, President Barack Obama was selling raising the minimum wage to Congress on Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor to a group of students. The president's address at the university was twofold; he listed the stream of economic accomplishments of presidency so far and was pushing raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 part of his economic opportunity program and a central issue to the Democrats' campaign this midterm election year, despite the fact the issue is failing to excite Democratic voters. President Obama used his favorite taglines of "opportunity for all" for his economic agenda and "It's time for $10.10. It's time to give America a raise" for his campaign to raise the federal minimum wage. Last week Vice President Joe Biden took over for the president selling raising the tipped minimum wage, and the benefits it would have for women workers.
The first part of President Obama's speech was used to highlight the economic achievements of his presidency, also used to sell them to the Democrats in the midterm elections. Looking at the domestic economy, Obama pointed out that "Our economy is doing better. It's growing. Our businesses are creating jobs -- 8.7 million new jobs over the past four years… we're now seeing the manufacturing sector add jobs for the first time since the 1990s. So that is good news. The housing market is recovering. Obviously the stock market has recovered, which means people's 401(k)s, if they have them, are doing a lot better."
The president also discussed the improvements in foreign trade and investments, stating; "Today you've got companies looking to invest in the U.S. instead of sending jobs overseas. They want to create more jobs and invest right here in the United States. We're more competitive. We're more productive." Obama tried to show the overall improvements to the economy under his administration.
Obama also used the opportunity to point out the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended on his watch, stating; "Troops that were fighting two wars, they're coming home. We just went through the first month since 2003 where no U.S. soldier was killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq."
Since his Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare reached the Congressional Budget Office's and the White House's goal of 7 million enrollees, a perceived victory for his law the president has been even smug over the Republicans who have constantly criticized the health care law, and the Republican House that has voted over 50 times to repeal the law.
No boasting on his presidential policy success would now be complete without Obama mentioning that crown achievement. The president expressed; "by the way, 7.1 million Americans have now signed up for coverage through the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare…. And by the way, that doesn't count the more than 3 million young people who have been able to stay on their parents' plans."
The president then moved to on to what was almost the standard text he uses to address his economic opportunity program, and selling raising the minimum wage. Obama explained that although the economy improved, lower income and middle-class Americans have not been able to bounce back as well as those in the higher income brackets. The president recounted; "We fought back from the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes. We've laid the foundation for America's future growth. But here's the problem… The economy increasingly has folks at the top doing really well, but then middle-class families, people who are struggling to get into the middle class, they're working harder, but their wages, their incomes aren't going up."
President Obama explained the mission of his economic opportunity program, saying; "In America, we do not believe in opportunity just for the few. We believe that everybody should have a chance at success…. And we believe our economy grows best not from the top down, but from the middle out, and from the bottom up.
President Obama then detailed his "four-part Opportunity Agenda to make sure everybody has a shot." The economic opportunity program consists of creating good paying jobs, technical job training programs, education initiatives from Pre-K to college, and fair wages including equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage.
Since delivering his State of the Union address in January the president has been pushing Congress to raise the minimum wage. Obama wants to lift the wage up from $7.25 to $10.10 for all American workers by 2016, and continued to urge Congress to pass legislation.
Although a majority of workers in the country earn more than the minimum wage, the low wages are leaving too many behind in poverty. Obama indicated; "Raising the minimum wage is not going to solve all of our economic challenges. But here's one thing we do believe: Nobody who works full-time should be raising their family in poverty, right? If you're working, if you're responsible, you should be able to pay the rent, pay the bills." Continuing he stated; "All across the country you can work full-time on the minimum wage and still be in poverty."
President Obama pointed out that even with an improved economy "There are always going to be folks who do critical work, who bust their tails every day - airport workers, restaurant workers, hospital workers, retail salespeople - who deserve an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. They're doing necessary jobs. They should be able to make a living."
Although Congress has yet to raise the minimum wage Obama has been pursuing two alternatives to bypass Congress, he signed an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers, and has been urging state governors to raise the minimum wage. Since his first call to raise the minimum wage in 2013 State of the Union Address, six states have raised the minimum wage, including; "California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island." Now 14 other states are considering do the same. Last Wednesday, March 26, Connecticut became the first state to raise the minimum wage to the $10.10 level the president wants Congress to pass.
Obama has been highlighting businesses that have taken the initiative themselves to raise their minimum wage. In his speech in Michigan he harkened back to history and Henry Ford as a pioneer of the minimum wage. So far Obama has praised Costco, the Gap, Cafe Beauregard in New Britain, and Pi Pizzeria in St Louis, Missouri.
Now President Obama focused on Zingerman's Delicatessen located in Ann Arbor, because its owner Paul Saginaw has advocated raising the minimum wage. Before his visit and address to the University of Michigan, Obama stopped by Zingerman's Deli with Rep. Gary Peters, D-MI, where he regrettably shared the Reuben with senior advisor Valerie Jarett joking that "After I finished the half, I wanted the (other) half back, but it was too late. All she had left was the pickle. So, I took the pickle."
The president being more serious explained why he visited the deli, saying; "I stopped for two reasons. The first is, the Reuben is killer. ... The second reason, though, is Zingerman's is a business that treats its workers well, and rewards honest work with honest wages. And that's worth celebrating."
The president followed through with advocating for a year of economic action by raising the minimum wage for federal contractors through an executive order on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 12. The president looked back at the action, saying; "I issued an executive order that requires federal contractors, folks who are doing business with the government, to pay their employees on new contracts a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour."
Although President Obama promised a year of economic action using executive orders to act where Congress fails to do so, the executive orders and presidential memorandum have limits and the president still needs Congress to pass certain legislation. However to achieve a universal raise, Obama still needs to convince Congress to pass a bill. The president acknowledged the limits, saying; "If we're going to do right by our fellow Americans, we need Congress to get onboard. We've got to have Congress to get onboard."
The proposed Senate bill to raise the minimum wage is sponsored by two Democrats, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Representative George Miller. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV wanted to symbolically vote on raising the minimum wage on Tuesday, April 8, the National Committee on Pay Equity's Equal Pay Day, however, because of a delay in the vote on the unemployment benefits extension, the minimum wage will be voted on the earliest now on Wednesday, April 9. President Obama urged Congress to vote in favor of the bill stating; "You've got a choice: You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise."
The bill would face opposition in the Republican House of Representatives from the Speaker John Boehner, R-OH who has numerous times stated that raising the minimum wage will result in less jobs for the lower income bracket. The Republican Congress is reluctant citing an Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) recent report stating jobs will be loss as a result of a raise.
President Obama tried to counter those claims spouting the benefits to the economy and for workers if the minimum wage was raised. According to Obama; "Passing this bill would not just raise wages for minimum-wage workers; it would help lift wages for nearly 28 million Americans, including nearly a million people right here in Michigan. It would lift millions of people out of poverty right away. It would help millions more work their way out of poverty right away."
Throughout his speech President Obama used every opportunity he could to criticize the Republicans, and contrast their policies the middle-class centered policies of his administration. The Democrats are using an age old tactic of portraying the Republicans as caring only for the wealthy to the detriment of the lower-income and middle-class Americans. President Obama has repeatedly criticized the House GOP's position on raising the minimum wage and did so again, stating; "Republicans in Congress don't want to vote to raise [the minimum wage] at all. In fact, some want to just scrap the minimum wage."
The president claims Republicans oppose the minimum wage because they believe only the youth work in minimum wage, jobs when in reality average age 35 and raising families. Obama explained; "most people who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are not teenagers taking on their first job. The average age of folks getting paid the minimum wage is 35. A majority of lower-wage jobs are held by women. Many of them work full-time, often to support a family."
Speaker Boehner had his spokesman Brendan Buck premptively fire back at the president for his harsh assessment of Republican economic policy by stating; "The president's plan would increase costs for consumers and eliminate jobs for those who need them the most. The House is going to continue focusing on our plan to protect workers' hours and create jobs, not the president's plan to destroy them."
President Obama followed up his attack on the Republicans by criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan's and Congressional Republican's budget for fiscal year 2015, which was released on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 entitled "The Path to Prosperity" where in looking to balance the budget by 2024, Ryan made 5.1 trillion in cuts to social programs, including saving 2.4 trillion from repealing Obamacare.
The president mocked the Republican's trickle down economy approach and the 50 plus votes the House has passed repealing the health care law. Obama laughed at the GOP's philosophy in typical campaign fashion, expressing; "The Republicans' refusal so far to raise the minimum wage is pretty consistent with their general worldview, which says basically you're on your own, government doesn't have a role to play. If this all sounds familiar it should be familiar because it was their economic plan in the 2012 campaign and the 2010 campaign....it's like that movie 'Groundhog Day,' except its not funny."
President Obama concluded his remarks urging Americans to push their Senators and Congressional representatives to vote in favor of the raising the minimum wage. Obama stated that the government has to "affirm the values that make sure we've giving everybody a chance; making sure our fellow citizens can also pursue their dreams…. That's also what America is about."
Last week while President Obama was on a five-day spring foreign policy trip to Europe and the Middle East dealing with the crisis between Russia and the Ukraine, the president handed over selling the minimum wage raise to Vice President Biden. The vice president focused on the plight of tipped wage earners most of whom are women many raising children alone.
Biden visited the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, DC on Wednesday, March 26 this was the first business the Obama administration has highlighted that raised the minimum wage for tipped workers, with their hourly wage at $3.77. Currently the tipped minimum wage sits at $2.13; Obama wants that number upped to "$4.90 by 2016." Biden commented that "The idea that you can work 40 hours a week and still be in poverty is just ridiculous, it's ridiculous." The vice president concluded; "it's good for business overall."
On the same day, Wednesday, March 26 the White House released a report entitled "The Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage on Women and the Importance of Ensuring a Robust Tipped Minimum Wage" about the benefits of raising the minimum raise in an attempt to counter the Congressional Budget Office's report and convince Congress to pass the bill they are going to vote on next week.
The report according to the White House "lays out how women and the workforce would benefit if Congress passed legislation to raise the national minimum wage and tipped minimum wage for all Americans." The report proved that it is not the youth that relay on tipped waged jobs, but women at 31 percent, and 26 percent with children. According the findings, 40 percent of workers earn less than the actual $7.25 hourly minimum wage. The White House concludes that 2.8 million "single parents" the majority are women, who would benefit from raising minimum for the tipped waged workers.
Then on Saturday morning, March 29 Vice President Biden took over weekly address duty, the address entitled "Raise The Minimum Wage - It's The Right Thing To Do For Hardworking Americans" was about "overwhelming need to raise the minimum wage" The address included all the elements and arguments President Obama uses in his speeches on the issue, focusing on the need, benefits and urging Congress to vote in favor of raising it concluding that "It's time to give America a raise."
The Vice President however, added a different twist using the president's women's economic agenda and subject of the White House report released earlier in the week. Biden emphasized that "It's good for business. It's helpful to the overall economy. And there's one more important benefit. Right now women make up more than half of the workers who would benefit from increasing the minimum wage."
Obama and Democrats have chosen economic opportunity and raising the minimum wage as their key issue in the midterm election campaign. The Democrats are on the edge where they might lose six seats and their control on the Senate. They already realize regaining control of the House of Representatives is virtually impossible at this point. Presidents often see their parties lose seats in the second midterm elections of their terms, and Obama and Democrats are trying to curb that precedent. However, raising the minimum wage has not energized the base and voters as much as the Democrats had hoped. President Obama will no doubtably continue on closer to the elections with similar addresses as the one he delivered at the University of Michigan, boasting of his administration's accomplishments, focusing on economic issues important to the Democratic base and included in the Obama budget and attack, attack and mock the Republicans hoping it will be enough to keep the Senate come November.
- NEW WHITE HOUSE REPORT: The Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage on Women and the Importance of Ensuring a Robust Tipped Minimum Wage | The White House, March 26, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.