Closing wealth gap tops Obama’s State of the Union

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WASHINGTON - President Obama, in his 2014 State of the Union speech here last night, defined narrowing of the unprecedented wealth gap in America as a major task facing the nation.

He delivered what was essentially a call for progressive approaches on a host of issues that he passionately argued were needed to keep alive the "American dream," while having to navigate through political channels heavily circumscribed by far-right Republican obstructionism.

"No one who works full time should have to live in poverty," he declared.

To that end, the president announced he has signed an executive order requiring contractors at federal buildings to pay at least $10.10 an hour to anyone they hire from here on out.

The executive action by the man who is technically the boss of all federal workers affects future contractors, not present ones. Combined, contractors currently employ 2.2 million workers at federal government facilities, most of whom make the minimum wage, still only $7.25 an hour. They toil in serving food, cleaning floors and a host of other manual tasks.

Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, was ecstatic as she listened to the president's speech in a room at AFL-CIO headquarters here. "We are thrilled that he will use his executive power to lift so many out of poverty," she said.

While the president pledged to do what he could by executive action he called upon the Congress to act also so that the minimum wage can be raised for all Americans. "Join the rest of the country," he said to Congress. "Say Yes. Give America a raise."

Democrats in the chamber rose to their feet in applause.

When the speech was over, however, Republicans began blasting the president for operating an "imperial presidency." GOP House Majority Leader John Boehner said the president should not be proposing or doing anything without congressional approval. Progressive lawmakers, however, scored the GOP on the issue.

"So much of what the president has tried to do whether it's raising the minimum wage or immigration reform has been blocked. He has a responsibility to act and they have left him no choice," said Ohio's Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

"Not one in the Republican caucus will come to meet the president half way," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. "When he put forward a stimulus package much smaller than what he actually wanted and when he backed a version of health care reform that included many Republican ideas, still not one Republican came out to back him."

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka praised the president for "discussing the need to create good jobs by investing in our country - investing in education, rebuilding our infrastructure, technology and manufacturing - and addressing our energy challenges by creating green jobs."

But he warned that much more had to be done. "We can't create good jobs if our trade policies turn around and ship those jobs overseas. We have to have trade that works for workers, not just for global corporations," said Trumka. Agreeing with the president, Trumka said, "Now it's time for Congress to take action and raise the minimum wage for all Americans, to literally put their money where their mouths are on dangerous levels of inequality in America. The minimum wage hasn't been raised since 2007. It's time we finally raise it to $10.10 an hour."

"We will continue to push our nation's leaders and corporations to put an end to poverty wages in our country," Trumka added.

The president said more needs to be done to end the wage gap between men and women. He noted that although women are half the workforce they get only 77 cents on each dollar paid to men. "In 2014 this is an embarrassment," he declared. When he called out loud for equal pay for equal work, even many Republicans stood to applaud. "I just hope they all vote with us on equal pay," said Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar after the speech.

The president called upon Congress to extend the federal unemployment benefits recently lost by millions of the long-term unemployed and he didn't hesitate to name names.

"Extend the benefits that you allowed to expire," he demanded of the Republican-controlled House. "The long-term unemployed need our help now but as a nation we need them even more for the long term future. We need everyone on board to have a strong economy. You can do it. Give these people that chance." Again his supporters in the chamber rose up in applause.

Liz Shuler, the AFL-CIO's secretary treasurer, noted that youth unemployment is an issue she would have liked to see addressed more strongly. "Youth unemployment rates are double the average," she said, "and we have to get serious about creating jobs for them."

On another topic, "If we are serious about economic growth," the president told the Congress, "Fix our broken immigration system."

He did not specify that lawmakers should pass the compromise bill crafted in the Senate, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers in the country. He also did not mention ending deportations. "Every day more than a thousand people are being torn from their families and this must be stopped," said Tefere Gebre, the AFL-CIO's executive vice president, after the speech.

The president also tackled the issue of voting rights. He noted, essentially, that a country serious about being a democracy cannot allow people to lose the right to vote. He called for passage of the Voting Rights Amendment bill of 2014, a bipartisan attempt to preserve the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court and to stop attacks on voting rights by tea party Republicans in many states.

On foreign policy he declared that the country cannot afford to remain on a "permanent war footing" and that ultimately, "adherence to our constitutional values" will go further than just military action in guarding national security. He highlighted the coming end to the longest war in U.S. history - Afghanistan.

He said that this would require reform to ensure that NSA surveillance programs do not violate privacy rights and that Congress should act to finally shut down Guantanamo. He also vowed to curb what many consider immoral and illegal drone attacks.

Most dramatically, he warned Republicans who have been threatening to sabotage the administration's nuclear arms talks with Iran: "If Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now to derail these talks I will veto it."

The president said his administration's use of diplomacy has had a number of good results including elimination of chemical weapons by Syria and rolling back of nuclear weapons development by Iran. "Leadership is determined more by the ability to free people from want and fear than it is by just imposing military strength," Obama said.

The president spent some time on energy policy and climate change, threading the political needle by trumpeting rising clean energy production, lower carbon pollution, higher fuel efficiency, and at the same time increasing oil and gas drilling on federal lands while keeping natural resources "pristine." Throwing down the gauntlet to climate deniers, he said, "[T]he debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."

On health care the president noted the recent rapid growth in numbers signing up for the Affordable Care Act, noting that nine million have now gotten insurance through new private plans or Medicaid expansion in the states.

He introduced a woman who signed up on Jan.1 and got insured. A few days later she had a health emergency and needed expensive surgery which, had she been uninsured, would have bankrupted her.

Then he asked Republicans to stop introducing bills to kill the Affordable Care Act. "Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty," he said.

Photo: Larry Downing/AP

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