LANHAM – President Barack Obama called for a higher federal minimum wage and more economic opportunities for ordinary Americans in a speech at the Costco in Lanham Wednesday morning, reiterating messages from his State of the Union address the night before.
“I’m choosing this to be a year of action, because too many Americans are working harder than ever just to get by, much less get ahead,” Obama said, in the 20-minute-long address.
Speaking just 12 hours after his annual address to Congress, Obama used the backdrop of a company that he has frequently praised for its higher wages and health benefits to bring home points about rewarding hard work with a living wage.
Congress must decide whether “they’re going to waste time creating new crises for people and new uncertainty, like the shutdown, or are we going to spend time creating new jobs and new opportunities?” Obama said.
Continuing the theme of strong executive action he presented in Tuesday’s speech, Obama laid out the “opportunity agenda” he says can bring concrete change in the coming year.
His four-part plan includes creating more new jobs, training workers to give them necessary skills for employment, and giving every child access to a “world-class” education, in addition to raising the minimum wage.
He repeatedly mentioned the need for Congress to take up these issues, but focused on what he will do without their help.
“America can’t just stand still if Congress isn’t doing anything. And I’m not going to stand still either,” he said.
Nena McNeil, a Prince George’s County employee who supports Obama’s proposals, said she was so excited to see the president she was shaking.
“A lot of people these days are really struggling. Even if you have two family household members that are currently working, it’s still hard to make it,” McNeil said.
Obama will soon issue an executive order increasing the minimum wage in future federal contracts to $10.10 per hour, a move he announced in the State of the Union that won’t require approval from Congress.
On Wednesday, he asked citizens to call on Congress to “give America a raise” and encouraged mayors, governors and state legislators to raise wages in their areas rather than wait for Congress to pass a federal bill.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, proposed a bill in March to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. It is set to come to the Senate floor in the coming months, but Republicans have indicated they will oppose it.
Greenbelt Mayor Emmett Jordan said before the Costco speech that he believed a minimum wage increase was overdue.
“This is the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C. The cost of living is pretty high, and even… if you’re making $10 an hour and you’re renting an apartment or you have a small mortgage, that is just barely enough to scrape by,” he said.
Obama called restoring opportunity for every American the “defining project of our generation.”
“The economy has been growing for four years now… but the wages and incomes of ordinary people haven’t gone up in over a decade,” he said.
This makes for less consumer spending, fewer customers, less hiring and less investment, hindering the economy, Obama said.
As he did on Tuesday, Obama said that women deserve equal pay and opportunity. Women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, and they also hold the majority of minimum wage jobs in the U.S.
The president’s energetic, upbeat speech drew loud cheers and applause from the crowd in Prince George’s County, where Obama remains extremely popular. His brief mention of the Affordable Care Act elicited one of the loudest responses of the morning from the spectators, many of whom were Costco employees.
Gov. Martin O’Malley rallied the crowd in remarks before the president’s speech, saying the country must respond to Obama’s appeals. O’Malley vowed to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10 per hour this year in his State of the State address last week.
In Lanham, O’Malley stressed the connection between a strong middle class and strong economic growth. Marking Maryland as a leader in economic growth, among other things, he said people all across the country are working too hard while living in poverty.
“While it’s right for us to consider ourselves the most important star in the flag, we are one star among the 50 states and we all rise and fall together. So that’s why it’s so important that we be about the business that the president called us to last night, which is to build our economy from the middle out and the middle up” O’Malley said.
Obama praised O’Malley as a champion of working families in America, and said he supported efforts by Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and the District of Columbia to raise the region’s minimum wage.
Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Donna Edwards, both Maryland Democrats, were also in attendance.
Obama’s speech kicked off a short tour designed to promote his State of the Union proposals, a presidential tradition. He was scheduled to speak in Pittsburgh Wednesday afternoon.