(Updated 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29)
President Barack Obama’s call to increase the nation’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour is part of his broader focus on attacking income inequality.
But that approach swiftly ignited strong reaction, pro and con, as soon as he outlined his initiative during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
Fellow Democrats praised Obama for addressing issues that they say threaten the nation's economic recovery. Republicans accuse the president of playing politics leading up to a crucial mid-term election.
Arguably the region’s strongest show of support came from St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a fellow Democrat, who announced on Facebook that he’s ordered that city employees who now earn less than $10.10 an hour would see their pay raised immediately to the president’s $10.10. That will affect at least 19 part-time city workers, the mayor said.
Obama’s minimum-wage proposal is “a useful step and an important goal,” the mayor said. “I hope other employers will follow the president’s example.”
In his address, which ran just over an hour in length, Obama touched on several topics, domestic and international.
But few generated as much immediate reaction as his call for Congress — as well as mayors and private employers — to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 from the current $7.25 an hour. The president added that he was using his executive powers to require federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees at least $10.10 an hour.
Ritenour grad recognized
The longest applause of the night was for Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg. The Army Ranger, who was seated next to First Lady Michelle Obama, was severely wounded in Afghanistan while on his 10th overseas deployment. He enlisted on his 18th birthday, in a delayed entry program, when he was a senior at Ritenour High School in the north St. Louis County community of Breckenridge Hills.
GOP solid in opposition
Missouri Republicans in Congress reflected the sharply critical GOP response. U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, accused the president of advocating “a form of economic collectivism.”
“The president has had five years to work with Republicans in Congress to improve the economy and get people back to work, but he has refused to do so by ignoring dozens of bills that would provide economic opportunities for all Americans,” said Luetkemeyer, whose district includes areas of St. Louis’ suburban counties.
“The president’s divisive speech tonight made it clear to Americans that he prefers class warfare and government hand-outs over good old-fashioned American ingenuity and hard work,” Luetkemeyer added.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, signaled frustration. “The people of the 2nd District are tired of the same old failed speeches and policies from President Obama,” she said. “The Show-Me state wants to know, ‘where are the jobs!’ It’s time the president started working with Congress and not around us.”
Wagner asserted that the president and fellow Democrats — particularly those running the Senate — have been ignoring Republican efforts to improve the economy. “The House has passed solutions that will increase the size of your paychecks, increase upward mobility, restore your individual liberties and lower costs on everyday items that you depend on every day like groceries, gasoline and the cost of your health care,” she said.
Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, said that the president is focusing too much on "excessive regulations."
In a video, Smith contended. "In the first three days of 2014, the Obama administration posted 141 new regulations — 141 regulations in just three days. President Obama seems intent to regulate everything from how we meet our energy needs to when we are allowed to use rivers for baptism services."
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., held off on issuing a post-speech statement until Wednesday morning during a conference call with reporters. Blunt was critical of the president's speech, saying the president's remarks failed to reflect political reality. Before the president's address, Blunt attracted lots of attention on TV and radio with his pre-address observations. Among other things, Blunt said that the president "had a lot of explaining to do."
Democrats embrace president's goals
Missouri’s Democrats in Congress were equally effusive in their praise, especially when the president decried workplace attitudes toward women that “belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode” — a shout-out to the cable drama that focuses on the 1960s.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said the president “laid out a bold, optimistic agenda that challenged us to reward hard work, renew economic security for middle-class families and keep faith with our senior citizens.”
Clay added, “I strongly support the president’s call to raise the minimum wage; pass comprehensive immigration reform; renew the Voting Rights Act; continue expanding access to affordable health care for all; and eliminating barriers to higher education that are keeping millions from achieving their dreams.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., didn’t hear much from the president about her hoped-for focus on the nation’s need to improve its infrastructure, including roads and bridges. But McCaskill praised the president’s remarks nonetheless.
Said McCaskill: “We’ve made a lot of progress these past few years, creating millions of jobs and pulling our economy out of the ditch — but there are an awful lot of common-sense ideas still sitting on the table that could build on that success, if elected leaders stop kowtowing to the political extremes and start working toward compromise to get things done.
“Raising the minimum wage for working families, building innovative private-public partnerships to invest in our roads and bridges, making the tax code fairer, and fixing our broken immigration system aren’t partisan initiatives,” she added. “They’re commonsense goals that we should all be ready to rally behind to strengthen America’s middle class families.”
Illinois’ members of Congress also split along party lines
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, asserted that Obama “took a more liberal, activist tone’’ because it’s an election year.
Shimkus was particularly concerned about the president’s plans to take action on his own. “Promises made in speeches are also not automatically the law of the land,” the congressman said. “However, President Obama wants to start using executive authority to take more actions without Congress’ involvement. This is an unprecedented challenge to Congress by a president.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat close to the president, praised Obama for “an optimistic speech about opportunity for American families, an economy on the rise and leveled a call to action to ensure this is a year of progress for the middle class.”
Aside from lauding the president’s minimum wage proposal, Durbin embraced Obama’s call for making 2014 “a year of action.”
Said Durbin: “Improving opportunities for American families requires innovation and action and I plan to work with my colleagues to build on the work we’ve done in my Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to reverse the devastating cuts to federally funded research and development and grow these programs for years to come.”
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was somewhat critical of the president’s address — but focused on an issue that Obama didn’t mention: the national debt. "Congress should put aside pointless partisan political bickering and tackle the toughest challenge our country faces, which is overspending by our federal government,” Kirk said. “The best way to do this is to embrace the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan commission report, which would cut federal spending by over $4 trillion. That single action is the best way to restore confidence in the American economy.”