President Obama took major themes of his State of the Union address on the road Wednesday, touting his proposal to increase the federal minimum wage in an appearance at a warehouse store in Maryland before heading to Pittsburgh to highlight a new retirement plan.
“Americans overwhelmingly agree nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” Obama said to applause in a morning speech at a Costco store in Lanham, Md., a Washington suburb. “And that is why I firmly believe it’s time to give America a raise.”
Obama later flew to Pittsburgh to visit the United States Steel Corp.’s Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, Pa., to talk about his proposal for a new kind of starter savings vehicle that he calls “MyRA,” short for “my retirement account.”
The trip is part of the president’s push to find new ways to build economic security for the middle class and expand opportunity for all Americans, advancing a second-term agenda that he outlined in Tuesday night’s nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress.
As Obama pitched his proposals Wednesday, congressional Republicans continued to press their objections to parts of his plan. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who presented one of the opposition rebuttals to Obama’s speech Tuesday night, complained in a CNN interview that the president was “not willing to negotiate” on issues such as raising the federal debt ceiling.
“I find that very concerning,” she said. “The president needs to work with us. He needs to come up here to Capitol Hill.” She added: “When it comes to the debt ceiling, I want to see some reforms attached to that.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in a statement responding to the State of the Union address, said: “Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.” He called for “making it easier for those who are stuck in low-paying jobs to seize opportunities to move up to better paying jobs.”
In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) excoriated Obama’s unilateral action to raise the minimum wage, calling it “dangerous” and part of a “persistent pattern of lawlessness” by enforcing “policies via executive fiat.” He wrote: “The president’s taste for unilateral action to circumvent Congress should concern every citizen, regardless of party or ideology.”
In his speech at the Costco store, Obama called for an increase in the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2015.
Before an enthusiastic crowd in a suburban county where the local government recently passed legislation to raise the minimum wage, Obama said he would lead by example. In his State of the Union address, he said he would sign an executive order requiring new federal contractors to pay their workers a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.
Saying that “this could be a breakthrough year for America,” Obama asked whether politicians in Washington are going to help or hinder the nation’s progress, “whether they’re going to waste time creating new crises for people and new uncertainty -- like the shutdown -- or are we going to spend time creating new jobs and new opportunities.”
He told the crowd: “I’m choosing this to be a year of action. Because too many Americans are working harder than ever just to get by, much less get ahead. The scars of the recession are real. The middle class has been taking it on the chin since before the recession. The economy has been growing for four years now, and corporate profits, stock prices have all soared. But the wages and incomes of ordinary people haven’t gone up in over a decade.”
As he warmed up the crowd, which included Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Obama joked that he needed some time at the warehouse club store to “pick up a snow shovel and one of those 50-pound bags of dog food for Bo and Sunny,” the first family’s Portuguese water dogs. Marveling at the array of merchandise, ranging from sofas to snorkeling sets, he drew laughter when he asked, “Who’s snorkeling right now? How many of those are you guys selling?”
Obama chose a Costco store for his visit because of the company’s move to increase wages for even its lowest-paid employees, White House officials said. And Maryland has been one of the states pushing most aggressively to raise the minimum wage. In 2007, Maryland passed a “living wage” law for companies contracting with the state. This year, O’Malley has proposed raising Maryland’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
In Pennsylvania, bundled up against the frigid temperatures gripping the Eastern Seaboard, Obama told steel plant workers he wanted to make sure “that after a lifetime of hard work, you can retire with some dignity.” He promoted a proposal for workers who lack a 401(k) retirement fund and wound find it hard to make ends meet on a Social Security check.
Speaking before a crowd of roughly 1,500 steelworkers, some of them sporting bright-orange hard hats, Obama said: “I want more people to have a chance to save for retirement through their hard work.” While he had been hoping that lawmakers would “go along” with a more ambitious retirement savings plan, he said, he decided to opt for a program he could launch without congressional approval.
Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would direct the Treasury Department on Wednesday to “create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA. It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg.”
Following up on that, a presidential memorandum Wednesday instructed Treasury to create a pilot project within 90 days and to “finalize the development of a new retirement savings security” by the end of this year.
The retirement account would create an cheaper way for smaller employers to enroll their workers in a plan — by taking an automatic payroll deduction that would go into a government-backed account with the employee’s name on it, similar to a Roth IRA. There would be only one investment option available, and it would not appreciate quickly, but it would not lose money. Contributions could be withdrawn at any time tax-free.
The administration says that half of all workers do not have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans.
Obama also renewed his push for equal pay for women, saying that wage inequality was “an embarrassment” in 2014. “We’ve got to get rid of some of these workplace policies that belong back in the ’50s,” he said.
“Women hold the majority of low-wage jobs,” he said. “And they’re not the only ones who’ve been stifled by stagnant wages. Even though the economy is more productive . . . the average person’s salary . . . hasn’t really grown.”
Juliet Eilperin and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.