Obama delivers Labor Day pep talk, renews push for raising minimum wage
MILWAUKEE — President Barack Obama renewed his push for Congress to raise the minimum wage Monday in a buoyant accounting of the economy’s “revving” performance, delivered on behalf of Democrats opening their fall campaigns for the midterm congressional elections.
“America deserves a raise,” he told a union crowd in Milwaukee, vowing to keep a hard sell on Congress in much the way he once courted his wife. “I just wore her down,” he cracked.
“After all unions have done to build and protect working Americans, I know it’s frustrating when people have the gall to blame you for the problems facing working Americans. I know you’ve got some experience with that around here,” Mr. Obama told a raucous crowd. “But you know what? If I were looking for a good job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union. If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union … And if I care about these things, I’d also want more Democrats looking out for me. I’m just saying.”
Timing his push to Labor Day, the traditional start of the autumn campaign, Obama aggressively drew attention to recent economic gains, setting aside past caution on that subject.
“By almost every measure the American economy and American workers are better off than when I took office,” he said, rattling off a string of improving economic indicators even while acknowledging not all people are benefiting. “The engines,” he said, “are revving a little louder.”
It was, at least indirectly, a pep talk for Democrats facing tough races in a nation still gripped with economic anxieties.
The emphasis on the minimum wage is designed to draw campaign contrasts with Republicans, many of whom maintain that an increase would hurt small businesses and slow down hiring. No one expects Congress to act on it before the November elections.
Despite the absence of a federal increase, 13 states raised their minimum wages at the beginning of this year. Those states have added jobs at a faster pace than those that did not raise the wage, providing a counterpoint to a Congressional Budget Office report earlier this year that projected that a higher minimum wage of $10.10 an hour could cost the nation 500,000 jobs.
Until now, Obama and his White House aides had been reluctant to draw too much attention to positive economic trends, worried that some may prove illusory or that, even if they hold, many working Americans continue to live on the edge of poverty and take no comfort in the upswing.
But in Milwaukee, Obama dared to say of the job picture, “We’re on a streak.”
White House aides still insist they are not declaring full victory over the lingering effects of a recession that ended five years ago.
But White House officials believe it is time to highlight recent improvements, in part to strengthen a difficult political environment for Democrats and to counter public perceptions that are eroding the president’s public approval. Officials say Obama’s most compelling case is to compare the economy now to what he inherited in 2009 in the aftermath of a near Wall Street meltdown.
Obama, whose public approval is at about 40 percent, has also been cautious about making appearances in states with close midterm political contests and where his popularity might be even lower.
But in coming to Wisconsin, he brought his Labor Day message to the state that was the epicenter of a fight over the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and several national labor leaders came with him.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who pushed through a law that stripped most public sector union members of their ability to collectively bargain, is now in a tight re-election campaign and has been mentioned as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016. Polls find that Walker and Democrat Mary Burke are deadlocked with the election just over two months away.
Walker was at General Mitchell International Airport to greet Obama upon his arrival in Milwaukee. Walker also greeted the labor leaders accompanying Obama, including Mary Kay Henry of the Services Employees International Union and Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers Union.
The White House is encouraging Democrats to draw attention to the recovery as they head into the November mid-term elections.
In an August memo to House and Senate Democrats, Obama’s top two economic advisers underscored the positive news: more than 200,000 jobs created per month for six consecutive months, a six-year high in auto sales, second-quarter economic growth that exceeded expectations and an expanding manufacturing sector.
The unemployment rate stands at 6.2 percent, dropping 1.1 points over the past year, and the stock market has nearly tripled in five years.
Even so, there is still significant weakness in the labor market, underscored by the long-term unemployed. Labor participation has dropped. As well, real hourly wages fell from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014 for all income groups, except for a 2-cent increase for the lowest income level, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
Americans seem caught between confidence and worry.
In July, the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index rose to its highest reading since October 2007, two months before the Great Recession began. But a new survey by Rutgers University found that Americans are more anxious about the economy now than they were right after the recession ended.