LA CROSSE, Wis. – Winding up two of the most momentous weeks of his presidency, which saw court victories on gay marriage and his health care law, a legislative win on a major trade pact and an emotional eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama turned his attention Thursday to an ongoing theme of his presidency: economic fairness.
“America has always done better economically when we’re all in it together, when everybody gets a fair shot,” he said at a packed fieldhouse here at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Far from a dispirited lame duck, Obama was loose and cracked wise, often sounding like he was running for a third term against presumptive presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Although he didn’t mention Walker by name, Obama seemed intent on helping the next Democratic nominee by alluding to the Republican Walker and knocking his economic policies, while extolling the gains made under DFL policies in neighboring Minnesota.
Obama made the case for his economic proposals that are going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress — a higher minimum wage, affordable college, sick pay, child care and infrastructure investment — but with a new wrinkle. Obama said salaried workers should have an easier time getting overtime pay following years — decades even — of stagnant wages for low- and middle-income Americans.
“If you work longer, if you work harder, you should get paid for it,” he said.
On overtime rules, Obama can act without the approval of Congress, where his proposals have largely died since the 2010 election.
Federal rules require businesses to pay time-and-a-half wages for any work over 40 hours to those earning a salary of less than $23,660. Obama has asked the U.S. Department of Labor to raise the threshold to $50,440, a level that, in purchasing power, would be equivalent to what the rule was for salaried American workers in the 1970s.
Obama’s speech came on a day when the Labor Department announced that the economy added 223,000 jobs last month, though concerns persist about slow wage growth and workers continuing to drop out of the labor force.
The overtime initiative is the latest Obama policy to address income inequality, which economists, Democrats and even Republican presidential candidates have identified as a growing threat to the economy and the country’s social fabric.
But Obama’s overtime plan wasn’t a hit with everyone in La Crosse.
Julian Bradley, a local Republican activist, said the proposal could be a disaster for a place like La Crosse.
“We really need details of the situation because we need to know what the economic impact will be,” Bradley said.
He dismissed Obama’s remarks as a “very political speech.”
Republicans, including the large and growing field of GOP presidential candidates, say the economy needs tax cuts and less intrusive regulations.
Walker wrote an opinion piece for RealClearPolitics this week titled, “Welcome to Wisconsin, Mr. President,” in which he said “bright spots in the Obama economy are few and far between as opportunities … are often quashed by a federal government that has grown too large, powerful and pervasive.”
Walker said his conservative policies have moved Wisconsin forward.
Obama said in his speech that Wisconsin had attacked the rights of workers to organize, referring to Walker’s battle to undo collective-bargaining rights for public employees and the passage of a right-to-work bill that private-sector unions fear will lead to their demise. Obama also called out cuts in Wisconsin education, a stagnant minimum wage, and tax breaks intended to trickle down to the middle- and working classes.
Just across the river …
By contrast, Obama asked, “What happens when we try middle-class economics? Just across the river, there’s a pretty interesting experiment,” referring to Minnesota.
Minnesota is enjoying a lower unemployment rate and higher incomes than Wisconsin while raising its minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, boosting taxes on the wealthy and enacting a (now-rescinded) college tuition freeze, Obama said.
Borrowing a line from the La Crosse newspaper, he said, “Minnesota is winning this border battle.”
The crowd ate it up, as Obama showed he’s kept the loyalty of the Democratic base.
Barb Puryear of La Crosse, wearing a “Nurses for Obama” T-shirt, exclaimed, “I felt like he was talking to us personally.”
Marcus E. Howard 612-673-1720