Facing Skeptical Public, Obama Pushes His Agenda

By Peter Baker; Jackie Calmes | International New York Times, January 29, 2014 | Go to article overview

Facing Skeptical Public, Obama Pushes His Agenda


Peter Baker; Jackie Calmes, International New York Times


The president is increasingly looking for ways to bypass Congress and use his own power to show that he can help the millions still struggling to get by.

With the United States economy the strongest it has been under Barack Obama and yet the public giving him its lowest marks for his handling of it, the president is increasingly looking for ways to bypass Congress and use his own power to show that he can help the millions still struggling to get by.

Mr. Obama, as he was expected to announce Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, now plans to sign an executive order requiring that construction workers and others working for federal contractors be paid at least $10.10 an hour, a more limited version of a policy that he has yet to push through a deeply divided Congress.

His effort to boost the income of people earning as little as the current minimum wage of $7.25 -- in a year when he has vowed to find ways to narrow a steadily growing income gap -- comes as the underlying economy is finally showing signs of vigor, with many forecasters predicting a year of substantial growth.

Though many Americans have yet to feel the improvement, demand for labor is up and the unemployment rate is below 7 percent for the first time since November 2008. Consumers, buoyed by rising home prices and stock values, are spending more; so are businesses. Exports are growing as Europe regains strength. And the fiscal drag from state and federal spending cuts has abated.

Economically speaking, said Scott A. Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West, "the state of the union is the best we have seen in years."

Yet taking credit is complicated. Most Americans, to judge by national polls, are not in a mood to give any to Mr. Obama. His ratings for his handling of the economy, never high since his first months in office, slipped throughout 2013. As he began this year, nearly six in 10 Americans disapproved, almost matching his lowest marks in 2011, a year of repeated and damaging fiscal fights with the new Republican House majority.

As he looks ahead to three more years in office, and with Republicans likely to still hold one if not both houses of Congress after the November elections, Mr. Obama is seeking ways to re- establish his command and make progress without cooperation on Capitol Hill.

The wage issue provides an example of what he has in mind. Mr. Obama called on Congress during last year's State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for workers across the board, only to watch the idea languish on Capitol Hill, where opponents maintained that it would hurt business and stifle job creation. With prospects for congressional action still slim, Mr. Obama is using the new executive order to go as far as he can on his own.

"You can be sure that the president fully intends to use his executive authority to use the unique powers of the office to make progress on economic opportunity, to make progress in the areas that he believes are so important to further economic growth and further job creation," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters Monday.

But the minimum wage order will also illustrate the limits of that approach.

If Congress increased the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25 as Mr. Obama has sought, 21 million employees would eventually get a raise (unless their jobs were eliminated), according to estimates by a liberal research organization. …

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