US President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for “a year of action” to make progress in the recovering US economy while combatting inequality and expanding opportunity for Americans.
In his annual State of the Union message to Congress, Obama promised action to reverse the tides of deepening inequality, even if he has to act on his own without Congressional action.
“America does not stand still — and neither will I,” Obama declared, referring to the Republican Opposition in Congress that has blocked many of his proposals over the past year, including key immigration reform.
In recent months, Obama has sought to refocus his attention on efforts to address economic inequality, including a renewed push for Congress to hike the federal minimum wage and renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
He asked Congress to raise the income floor to $10.10 an hour.
“This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend,” Obama told Congress. “It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic programme. So join the rest of the country. Say yes: Give America a raise.” He urged the passage of legislation already in Congress that would raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour. The measure would tie the minimum wage to inflation for the first time.
Obama urged businesses to unilaterally hike wages and hire the long-term unemployed — and pay women more than the 77 cents they now earn for every dollar a man earns, which he called an “embarassment.” In one of the humanising vignettes common to modern presidential addresses, he praised Minnesota pizza parlour owner John Soranno — in the audience with one of his young employees — for having raised his workers’ pay to $10 an hour.
“I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead and do what you can to raise your employees’ wages,” Obama said.
“And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example.” He said he would use his executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for people working on federal contracts, affecting low-skilled service employees such as janitors and cashiers.
Obama urged Congress to extend benefits for 1.6 million long-unemployed people whose payments stopped at the end of 2013.
“They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been asking CEOs to give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot at that new job and new chance to support their families ... Tonight, I ask every business leader in America ... to do the same.”
He was scheduled to meet this week at the White House with top business leaders to discuss ways to help the long-term jobless, whose ranks have swelled since the 2007-09 recession, return to gainful employment.
Obama asked Congress to authorise streamlined negotiation of trade treaties through the so-called fast-track legislation.
“New trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help (US exporters) create more jobs,” he said. “We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the USA.’” The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership — including the United States and countries from Asia and the Americas — could be the first beneficiary if Congress reauthorizes fast-track authority, under which trade treaties can be submitted without amendment for passage by both chambers.
A proposed free-trade deal is also being negotiated with the European Union.
Opposition Republicans, who control the lower House of Representatives, mostly support free trade and a fast-track process, while Obama’s own Democrats, with close ties to organised labour, have been skeptical of such legislation.
Obama again called for lawmakers to reform immigration laws, after the effort stalled last year in the House. He painted immigration reform as an economic imperative, suggesting it could have a favourable budget impact by reducing spending and increasing tax revenue.
“When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, and contribute to our culture,” he said, “they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone.”
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