WASHINGTON — President Obama rallied his base on Wednesday as he reiterated calls for an increase in the federal minimum wage, more fairness in union organizing, an extension of unemployment insurance benefits and immigration reform to address what he said was a “growing inequality and a lack of upward mobility” for the poor and middle class.
In an economic address sponsored by the The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, Obama said the “defining challenge of our time is making sure our economy works for every working American.” To that end, he outlined several key policy priorities, many of which he has advocated in the past, to address the disparities between high income earners, the middle class and the poor — all steps he argued will help boost consumer spending and ultimately lead to more economic growth.
“And even though we’re bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, we’re creating more good-paying jobs in education and health care and business services,” Obama said. “We know that we’re going to have a greater…portion of our people in the service sector. And we know that there are airport workers and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty. And that’s why it’s well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.”
In his State of the Union address in February, Obama pledged to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour by the end of 2015 from the current $7.25. But gridlock in Washington, which led to a 16-day government shutdown in October, has prevented many such policy priorities from advancing.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) has introduced legislation to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 in three phases and provide for automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living — a measure that Obama supported in November.
In the absence of Congressional action, several states have moved independently to raise their state wage rates. New York passed a three-step wage increase in April that will boost the rate to $8 an hour in 2014, $8.75 in 2015 and $9 in 2016. New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment in November to raise their minimum wage by $1 an hour to $8.25 on Jan. 1, and on Tuesday, the City Council in the District of Columbia took a preliminary vote to increase the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. The bill must clear another vote before advancing to Mayor Vincent Gray’s desk.
“A broad majority of Americans agree we should raise the minimum wage,” Obama declared. “That’s why, last month, voters in New Jersey decided to become the 20th state to raise theirs even higher. That’s why, yesterday, the D.C. Council voted to do it, too. I agree with those voters and I’m going to keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage for hard-working Americans across the entire country. It will be good for our economy. It will be good for our families.”
Obama also emphasized the need for a robust trade agenda, although he did not give any details about the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations between the U.S. and 11 other countries or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and European Union.