As is the custom with the annual State of the Union address, President Barack Obama’s visit to the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday was rife with handshakes, hugs, kisses, timed and politically infused applause choices, and policy positions personalized by people whose stories are by turns inspiring or heart-wrenching. That is all to be expected and worth about as much as the airtime it receives.
The more meaningful components of the speech revealed that Obama is frustrated with Congress’ inaction on just about everything, and he intends to go it alone where he can. The trouble is, his reach is far shorter than necessary to meaningfully address such significant concerns as income inequality, which is one of Obama’s top priorities in 2014.
Vowing to use the powers his chief executive status affords him, Obama took the bully pulpit to urge cities, counties and states to increase their minimum wages, while also applauding businesses who pay workers more than the $7.25 federal law currently requires. And to show he is serious about increasing the minimum wage – something Congress has refused to do since 2007 – Obama will sign an executive order giving federal contractors a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. That figure has been proposed as the new national wage floor, but Republicans in Congress have blocked efforts to pass legislation setting the rate.
It is a strong symbolic move that indicates Obama’s commitment to action that helps low-wage workers meet their basic financial obligations, but it does little to meaningfully address the growing income inequality in the United States.
At $10.10 an hour, workers will not be launched to the middle class. At just more than $21,000 a year, that wage will bring workers a step up from the $15,080 that the current minimum wage grosses, but it is not a fix-all that fully addresses the issue that “if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.”
Nevertheless, Obama’s promise is a symbolically meaningful one, as is Speaker of the House John Boehner’s response.
“Let’s understand something: This affects not one current contract; it only affects future contracts with the federal government. And so I think the question is, how many people, Mr. President will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero,” said Boehner, R-Ohio.
That may be, but Boehner and his crew have done even less to address the problem, other than consistently say “no” outright to federal minimum-wage increases. So Obama is ahead of the game with his approach.
The same can be said for his plan to create an investment bond – a MyRA – that offers a no-risk way for Americans to save for retirement. Again, the step is significant in that it makes investment accessible for those to whom it might not otherwise be. But it is largely symbolic for the fact that workers who are not saving for retirement are likely doing so for lack of means – not lack of investment opportunities.
For what these and other executive actions promised Tuesday lack is Obama’s willingness to back these values with executive action that signal his commitment to action despite congressional gridlock and the partisanship at play. That is not without considerable value at a time when significant action is needed.
It may not be enough to address the problems that too many Americans face, but it is far from nothing – and could work to force bigger, bolder steps from a chastened Congress eager to work with the president to improve the state of the union. Would that it could.