Challenging lawmakers to help him create greater economic opportunity, President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address Tuesday to announce he’s raising the minimum wage for new federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, underscoring a go-it-alone strategy in an election year critical to Democrats’ hopes for gains in Congress.
Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress will be wrapped in a unifying theme: The federal government can play a key role in increasing opportunities for Americans who have been left behind, unable to benefit from a recovering economy.
Yet the president will deliver a split message, pressing issues that will distinguish him and Democrats from Republicans, critical in a year of midterm elections.
Illustrating his willingness to act on his own, the White House says Obama will announce that he will sign an executive order increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 for new federal contracts. The measure affects only future contracts, not existing ones, and would only apply to contract renewals if other terms of the agreement changed. As a result, the order would benefit far fewer workers than the number foreseen by advocates of federal contract employees.
Still, the issue dovetails with what will be Obama’s broader call for an increase in the national minimum wage to $10.10 and for future increases to be tied to inflation. Obama last year had called for an increase in the minimum wage to $9.
Even as he argues that low income Americans and many in the middle class lack the means to achieve upward mobility, Obama will also feel compelled to take credit for an economy that by many indicators is gaining strength under his watch. As a result, he will talk positively about a recovery that remains elusive to many Americans.
Some Democrats are warning Obama to tread carefully.
"We hope that he does not dwell on the successes of the economy, which may be apparent in employment statistics, the GDP and stock market gains, but which are not felt by folks at the grocery store," Democratic political analysts James Carville and Stan Greenberg wrote in a recent strategy memo.
The president will present Congress with an agenda largely unchanged from what he called for a year ago, but one that nevertheless fits neatly into this year’s economic opportunity theme. He will continue to seek an overhaul of immigration laws, an increase in the minimum wage and expanded pre-school education.
But after a year in which those proposals languished and gun control failed, the White House is eager to avoid letting Obama be defined by quixotic ambitions. As a result, he will stress success through executive actions, though their reach would be far more modest than what he could achieve through legislation.
"Congress is slow to action and we’re not going to wait for that," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said in an interview on "CBS This Morning." He told NBC’s "Today" show that Obama is not concerned about his public approval ratings as he enters the sixth year of his presidency: "The president doesn’t come down to work every day or go up to the residence every night worried about poll numbers."
Obama’s biggest and most lasting accomplishment of his second term could be immigration legislation. House Republican leaders lately have sent signals that they are willing to act on piecemeal legislation, and Obama has given them room to work without prodding.
How immigration gets resolved will depend much on what the House is able to pass and if and how it can be reconciled with bipartisan Senate legislation that passed last year. Conservatives are pushing back against any bill that gives legal status to immigrants who are in the country illegally. And some Democrats would prefer to use the unresolved issue to mobilize Hispanic voters for this year’s midterm elections.
Eager not to be limited by legislative gridlock, Obama on Tuesday is also expected to announce executive actions on job training, retirement security and help for the long-term unemployed in finding work.
Among them is a new retirement savings plan geared toward workers whose employers don’t currently offer such plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into a traditional IRAs, according to two people who have discussed the proposal with the administration. Those people weren’t authorized to discuss it ahead of the announcement and insisted on anonymity.
"Tomorrow night, it’s time to restore opportunity for all," Obama said Monday on the video-sharing site Vine, part of the White House’s broad social media promotion of the speech.
The White House says the hike in minimum pay for federal contract workers would most benefit janitors and construction workers working under new federal contracts, as well as military base workers who wash dishes, serve food and do laundry. The White House says contractors will have time to take the higher minimum wage into account when pricing their bids.
Obama’s go-it-alone approach has already irritated Republicans, some of whom claim he is pushing the limits of the Constitution.
"We have a minimum wage. Congress has set it. For the president to simply declare I’m going to change this law that has passed is unconstitutional," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said Tuesday on CNN.
"He can work with us to create opportunity and prosperity," wrote Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Or he can issue press releases."
The approach, some Republicans say, could also backfire by angering GOP leaders who already don’t trust Obama’s administration.
"The more he tries to do it alone and do confrontation, the less he’s going to be able to get cooperation," said John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide.
Obama will follow his State of the Union address with a quick trip Wednesday and Thursday to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee to promote his proposals. On Friday, Obama will hold an event at the White House where he’ll announce commitments from several companies to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring.
Following tradition, the White House has invited several people to sit with first lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday night’s address. Among them are General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Cristian Avila of Phoenix, an immigrant who with two younger siblings was brought to the U.S. illegally when Avila was 9. Now 23, Avila is one of the so-called Dreamers who have benefited from an Obama policy allowing young people who immigrated illegally with their parents to avoid deportation. Other guests include two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing and Jason Collins, an openly gay former NBA player.