In his annual State of the Union address President Obama advanced one more time the philosophy he’s been embracing over the past year – that the federal government can and should raise baseline standards inside the American workplace.
Barack Obama made his case to a skeptical, Republican-controlled Congress that the government should establish rules setting how the economy works for everyday people, particularly when wages are stagnating despite broader job gains.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” Obama said. “We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.”
In his speech he also noted the problem of getting paid sick days and family leave, a priority that administration officials previewed in the days before the address.
The president called for passing legislation that would guarantee workers the ability to accrue paid sick days on the job.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” the president said. “And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.”
The U.S. President has the power to extend maternity and paternity leave to federal workers through what amounts to an accounting trick, while also extending grants to states to pursue their own programs.
“He realizes Congress is never going to work with him,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “It’s clear – it’s absolutely clear – so if things are going to get done, he has to do them by himself.
“I think he’s using most of the tools in his toolbox right now,” Eisenbrey added. “He doesn’t have all that much latitude, so they’re being fairly creative.”
Barack Obama also tried to press Congress on raising the minimum wage. Some states have since hiked their own minimum wages, including red states, such as Nebraska and South Dakota, while the president instituted a new minimum wage of $10.10 for workers under federal contracts.
“To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” the president said. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Speaking on the gay issues Obama noted that the country as more divided than ever. The president then took a victory lap on marriage equality, the civil rights triumph of our time:
“I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.”
Obama wove into his defense of American leadership and values an historic shout-out to sexual minorities who’ve never been acknowledged on the State of the Union stage:
“That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.”