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Obama follows through with economic opportunity tour after State of the Union

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For two day after his State of Union on Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 29 and 30, 2014 President Barack Obama embarked on a policy tour to sell his economic agenda. On Wednesday, Jan. 29 Obama spoke at the Costco store in Lanham, Maryland about raising the minimum raise, and then a steel plant in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the creation of a retirement savings account called myRA. Following on Thursday, Jan. 30 the President spoke at the General Electric Waukesha Gas Engines Facility in Wisconsin on technical job training programs and finally ended his trip at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tennessee speaking about education initiatives. Each stop on his tour represented a different element of the economic opportunity program that he intends to advance and accomplish by exerting the power of executive orders and memorandums without waiting for Congress to pass legislation, Obama gave the excuse that "I want to work with them, but I can't wait for them."

On Wednesday, Jan. 29 President Obama spoke at the Costco store in Lanham, Maryland about equal pay for work which particularly applies to women and raising the minimum wage. The President chose to speak at Costco because their starting pay is $11.50 an hour, the average is $20, "And Costco's commitment to fairness doesn't stop at the checkout counter; it extends down the supply chain, including too many of the farmworkers who grow the product -- the produce that you sell."

Speaking of equal pay he repeated the most tweeted line of his State of the Union address; "we got to get rid of some of these workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode, belong back in the '50s." Obama also announced that he will sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10. The President explained how important a minimum wage to all Americans; "Americans overwhelmingly agree nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. And that is why I firmly believe it's time to give America a raise."

The President declared he is going to take the initiative without Congress, saying; "While Congress decides whether it's going to raise the minimum wage or not, people outside of Washington are not waiting for Congress, and I'm not either. As the chief executive, I'm going to lead by example…. [I]f you cook our troops' meals, wash their dishes, you shouldn't have to live in poverty." Still the President needs Congress "to catch up to the rest of the country on this" and he urged them to "Give America a raise."

In the afternoon Obama spoke at the United States Steel Corporation Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania about the creation of a retirement savings plan called myRA standing for "my retirement account." The program is primarily for workers whose employment does not offer pension plans targeting low-income or middle-class. Obama believes it will "help shift the odds back in favor of working and middle-class Americans."

The President called the program "simple" and "safe," where "Workers can contribute through automatic deductions in their paychecks, just like those of you who have an employer-sponsored pension fund can do. They can keep the same account even if they change jobs, so they can carry it over." The retirement account allows for workers to add small amounts to the account until they transfer it into an IRAs, the one drawback is workers can only use the program if their employers sign-up for it. In announcing the program the President said; "I want more people to have the chance to save for retirement through their hard work, and this is just one step we can take to help people do that."

After his remarks Obama followed through on his promise of action and signed a presidential memorandum "creating" the myRA retirement savings program, adding to the dramatics Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was at the plant to take the signed memorandum to ensure it goes into law and gets started "to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings."

The President started the second day of his tour on Thursday, Jan. 30 where he spoke at the General Electric gas engine facility in Waukesha, Wisconsin about technical job training programs. During his visit, Obama signed an executive order to review all federal job training programs, to as the President explained; "find what programs are working best, and let's duplicate them and expand them." Vice President Joe Biden will be in charge of the initiative, and "is going to lead an across-the-board review of America's training programs."

Wisconsin was chosen because of the job training employed by the state that promotes jobs in manufacturing; "because you're doing some really good stuff that everybody else needs to pay attention to." The President described the state's program; "Together with a local high school, you started a youth apprenticeship program…. after two years they leave with both a high-school diploma and a technical certificate. Then, you set up an adult apprenticeship program, so that folks can earn while they learn." He commended that they "even helped set up a "schools to skills" program with a local business alliance to bring kids to factories and help inspire them to pursue careers in manufacturing." The GE Plant partners with these training programs, and Obama declared; "What you're doing at this plant and across this region can be a model for the country."

The President's job training initiative is threefold; a "job-driven approach to training," for young workers he wants to "create more apprenticeship opportunities that put workers on a path to the middle class." Additionally, the Labor Secretary Tom Perez will set up "a national competition… challenging community colleges to partner with local employers and national industries to design job-driven training programs." Obama announced his administration is going to "invest nearly $500 million in the partnerships that show the most potential." President concluded they are going "to build the world's best-trained workforce," which is going "to restore opportunity for everybody who's willing to work hard."

The last stop on the President's tour was McGavock Comprehensive High School in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 30 where he outlined his education initiatives, including "universal" Pre-K programs, ConnectED providing broadband and wireless internet access for schools, and relieving student loan debt. Again Obama expressed that he wanted to work Congress, but cannot wait for them; "I'd like to see Congress act more boldly. While Congress decides if it'd like to give every child that opportunity, we're not waiting…. High-quality early education is one of the best investments we can make in a child's life."

At his visit to the Nashville high school however, he was able to highlight another policy initiative that has fell on deaf ears in Congress, gun control reform. Just days before Obama came to the high school there was fatal "off campus" killing when a 17-year old student accidentally shot a 15 year-old student, when a gun they were playing with went off, both were students at McGavock.

The President addressed the shooting in his remarks; "I also recognize the past couple days have been hard and have tested people's spirits. Some of you lost a good friend. So I wanted you to know that Michelle and I have been praying for all of you in the community, and I know that all of us are sending prayers to those families that have been so directly impacted; this has been heartbreaking." President Obama spoke to the victim's family prior to his speech.

The President also commended McGavock's curriculum that features applied learning, where they "choose from one of four academies that allow [them] to focus on a specific subject area," and where students work with local businesses to apply what they have learned; "The idea is simple but powerful. Young people are going to do better when they're excited about learning -- if they see a connection between what they're doing in the classroom and how it is applied."

The program somewhat resembles what the President wants to accomplish with his jobs training initiative, and which he believes should applied in high schools. Curriculums that "teach you everything you need to succeed in college, but because of that hands-on experience, you're able to create pathways to make sure that folks also are able, if they choose not to go to a four-year institution, potentially get a job sooner."

President Obama summed up his educational program; "Get to kids when they're three, four years old…. We've got to make sure that we are supporting our teachers…. which means giving them the professional development they need, giving them the support that they need -- and giving them the pay that they need… We've got to make sure that our high schools engage our children…. we can restructure how our high schools operate to make sure every child is engaged. And the more we can link them to real hands-on experience, the more likely they are to be engaged. And we've got to make college affordable for every young person in America."

Speaking in at each of the stops of his tour, President Obama described the program as having "four parts"; "And this opportunity agenda has four parts. Number one, we need more new jobs. Number two, we need to train more Americans with the skills that they need to fill those jobs. Number three, we should guarantee every child access to a world-class education. And number four, let's make sure hard work pays off." The President justified it as "the defining project of our time, of our generation, is to restore opportunity for everybody."

The economic program the President introduced was sweeping covering education from pre-K to university, job training, manufacturing hubs, energy independence, tax reform, retirement savings accounts, tax credits, unemployment benefits overhaul and immigration reform all centered on a "very simple but profound idea -- the idea of opportunity" "to strengthen the middle class," and "make it easier for folks to work their way into the middle class."

President Obama's across-the-board economic opportunity plan would "make this a year of action." Obama expressed in his State of the Union Address; "That's what most Americans want - for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all - the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead."

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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.

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