By Roberta Rampton
LANHAM, Maryland (Reuters) – President Barack Obama, on a road trip to highlight themes from his State of the Union speech that called for narrowing the gap between the rich and poor, urged Congress on Wednesday to raise the minimum wage for millions of low-income Americans.
“If you work hard, you should be able to pay your rent, buy your groceries, look after your kids,” Obama said at a Costco big-box store in this Washington suburb. “If you put in a hard day’s work you deserve decent pay for it.”
Flanked by boxes of paper towels and garbage bags, Obama said that in coming weeks he will sign an executive order raising to $10.10 an hour the minimum wage for federal contract workers. But he said Congress must act to raise it for millions of other American workers. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Obama noted that many state governors have already taken steps to raise the minimum age in their states.
“While Congress decides whether it’s going to raise the minimum age or not, people outside of Washington are not waiting, and I’m not either,” he said.
As part of a symbolic trip the day after his annual State of the Union address, Obama headed for a U.S. Steel plant near Pittsburgh to raise momentum for a proposal to make it easier for Americans to put money away for retirement.
His travel has a political motive. He wants to help Democrats win seats in November’s congressional elections by focusing on a popular theme that touches on the economy and income inequality.
Although Obama’s action on the minimum wage will affect only a relatively small number of workers, it drew praise from members of his Democratic Party, many of whom were discouraged by the flawed roll-out of his signature healthcare reform law last fall.
“The increase in the minimum wage is a very powerful message. It resonates across the country,” said Senator Ed Markey of 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 cause employers to cut jobs and 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 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
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.
At the U.S. Steel plant in West Mifflin, Pa., Obama was to promote his proposal to create a program to help Americans who do not have traditional IRA or 401K savings accounts to save money for retirement.
Obama said in Tuesday’s speech that 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.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by David Storey, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Dan Grebler)