President Obama needs women this fall, and he made the case that they need him, too

President Obama needs women this fall, and on Thursday, he made the case that they need him, too.

Addressing students, mothers, teachers and workers at a community college here, Obama began a months-long focus on women’s issues ahead of the fall midterm elections, emphasizing how his administration’s proposals — including raising the minimum wage and strengthening equal-pay laws — would help women.

“Soon, for the first time, America’s highly educated workforce will be made up of more women than men,” he said. “But the thing is, our economy hasn’t caught up to that reality yet. So we’ve got too many women who work hard to support themselves and their families . . . [while] facing unfair choices or outdated workplace policies that are holding them back.”

Obama and his advisers described the focus on women as a response to challenges in the real economy, but the politics of the effort were clear. Democrats are focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as the minimum wage and equal pay for women to draw a contrast with Republicans.

It is critical for Democrats — who face a daunting electoral map — to maximize turnout at the polls among women, who have traditionally given the party an edge. White House officials have stressed that they consider maximizing Democratic turnout one of Obama’s key roles for the fall.

Speaking in Orlando, President Obama touted programs designed to improve economic opportunity for women and working families, including raising the minimum wage. (Reuters)

In 2006, 2008 and 2012, Democrats beat Republicans among women by nine to 13 percentage points. But losing that advantage can be catastrophic: Democrats were walloped in the 2010 midterm cycle, when Republicans edged out a one percentage point win among women.

This year, Democrats continue to hold the lead among women by 50 percent to 42 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in early March. Although more women than men vote in presidential elections, however, the gap narrows significantly during midterms.

White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said the president’s focus reflects the fact that more women are the primary breadwinners in their families, meaning that “when they are held back, it hurts all.”

“Politics aren’t driving this, but it is another example of good policy being good politics,” she wrote in an e-mail.

But Republicans were using Obama’s focus on women to highlight what they say are failures of his tenure. Referring to his signature health-care law, Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said women have “faced higher levels of poverty and lower incomes as Obamacare continues to hold back economic growth.”

Obama’s remarks here Thursday, made before he attended a pair of fundraisers in Miami, ranged from substantive arguments in favor of his policies to a personal reflection on the role of women in his life. The president talked about growing up with a single mom and a strong grandmother who hit the glass ceiling, and about the fact that he lives at the White House with his wife, daughters and mother-in-law.

He endorsed an upcoming Senate vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, twice-rejected legislation that would take several steps to help women in the workplace, such as allowing employees to share salary information freely and requiring big companies that pay women less than men to explain why.

“This is a really simple principle. This should not be confusing,” Obama said. “On average, women are still earning just 77 cents on every dollar that a man does.”

The president also called for workplace policies that support paid leave for new mothers. He did not mention specific proposals but he has previously supported the Healthy Families Act — which would require companies to offer paid sick leave — and his budget includes a program to start pilot leave programs.

“Congress needs to act so that Americans join every other advanced nation on Earth by offering paid leave to folks who work hard every day,” he said. “It’s time to do away with some of these workplace policies that belong on a ‘Mad Men’ episode.”

Obama urged passage of legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a measure Congress plans to debate soon. He also said the Affordable Care Act, his health-care law, helps women.

“No American, zero, can ever again be denied health insurance because of a preexisting condition,” he said, adding, “Not to mention, no woman can ever again be charged more for just being a woman.”

In coming months, the White House will hold roundtables in cities nationwide promoting the role of women in the economy. The efforts will culminate in a June 23 working families summit at the White House.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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