Pressing his economic case in an election year, President Barack Obama came to Michigan on Wednesday to praise the state’s ongoing effort to raise the minimum wage — and to accuse Republicans who oppose that step in Michigan and in Congress of standing in the way of prosperity for millions of Americans.
An upbeat Obama struck a distinctly partisan tone at the University of Michigan, a day after his administration received an unexpected burst of good news when his health care law beat expectations for its first year of enrollment. Addressing a crowd of about 1,400 in a stadium that included many students, Obama cracked jokes about his GOP foes as he touted his plan to raise federal wages to $10.10 per hour.
“You’ve got a choice. You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise,” Obama said.
At Obama’s side for his three-hour visit to this Midwestern battleground state was Rep. Gary Peters, a Senate candidate embracing the chance to appear with the president before voters this year. Some other Democrats have shied away from Obama amid controversy over his health care plan, but Peters opted to appear with Obama as the president echoed his State of the Union affirmation that no American working full time should live in poverty.
“It would lift millions of people out of poverty right away,” the president said of his proposal. “It would help millions more work their way out of poverty right away.”
Michigan also has an effort to put a measure on the November ballot to increase the state minimum wage from $7.40 to $10.10 an hour, an initiative that polling shows is popular among voters who have been hit hard by the economic downturn in recent years.
Nationally, Obama wants to increase the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 as part of an election-year economic agenda focused on working families. The White House says that would benefit more than 970,000 workers in Michigan.
The Senate could vote on a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 as early as next week. The Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, said Wednesday that if Republicans block Democrats’ efforts, he would be open to negotiating a compromise.
One potential compromise could involve moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins. The Maine lawmaker, who is facing re-election this year, said she’s spoken to senators of both parties about a smaller minimum-wage increase plus renewing tax breaks for small businesses that buy new equipment or hire veterans. She declined to provide details and said her plan could change.
“What we know for certain is $10.10 isn’t going to get through the Senate, much less the House,” she said, referring to the GOP-run chamber. House leaders have expressed opposition to that proposal. She said the choice was between trying to craft a bill that might pass, “or do some members simply want one vote and a political issue?”
On their way to the campus, Obama and Peters stopped at Zingerman’s Deli, an Ann Arbor landmark, where they ordered Reuben sandwiches and were served by a Michigan graduate who makes $9 an hour — a rate above the current federal minimum wage. “That’s worth celebrating,” Obama said.
Peters could benefit from the publicity that a presidential visit brings, since he has not been elected statewide and polls show many voters are unfamiliar with him. Asked whether he was concerned about absorbing backlash from Obama’s unpopular health care law, Peters stressed the president’s economic message.
“I’m happy to be with the president. I work with the president on issues that are important to middle class families, here in Michigan, and families who aspire to be in the middle class,” Peters said as Obama prepared to take the stage.
Michigan voted for Obama in both his presidential campaigns, and his bailout of the auto industry has been popular here. Still, appearing with Obama is not without risk.
An EPIC/MRA poll of voters in the state taken in February showed 61 percent of respondents have a negative view of Obama’s job performance, versus 37 percent positive. The same poll found Peters and his Republican opponent separated by just a few points in a competitive race.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, who supports a higher minimum wage and is challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, also planned to meet with Obama while he was in Michigan, his campaign said.
Obama also plans to travel to his hometown of Chicago for two evening fundraisers benefiting the Democratic National Committee. The first is a private roundtable discussion being attended by about 25 supporters who contributed up to $32,400. The second, at the Lincoln Park home of Obama donors Grace Tsao-Wu and Craig Freedman, is a dinner reception with about 55 supporters contributing up to $10,000 apiece.