WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday night laid out a vision for a society in which everyone has a fair shot at a decent education, adequate health care and a job that pays a living wage.
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class," said the president in the first State of the Union address of his second term. "It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country -- the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love."
The president's most notable proposal was to raise the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour. A worker making the minimum wage now earns just $14,500 a year -- well below the living wage in many areas. Obama also proposed indexing it to inflation, so that when the cost of living goes up, so do earnings.
"This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families," said Obama. "It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. And a whole lot of folks out there would probably need less help from government. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher."
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Huffington Post that he was "very grateful the president focused on income inequality." He said he wholeheartedly supported the minimum wage increase, although believed that $9 an hour was probably too low.
"I also think it's nice to talk about indexing the minimum wage to inflation, but I think it would be better to index it to CEO pay," Ellison said. "So if the CEO is making a lot of money, everyone else should get some money."
"Anyone who works hard and full time should not be living in poverty," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). "That's a basic principle we have. I was very pleased with the proposal to link minimum wage with inflation so we don't have to revisit this all the time, so we can make sure a full-time job always keeps people above poverty."
Republicans were less enthusiastic, suggesting how tough it will be to get a raise through Congress. During the 2012 campaign season as well, Republicans mostly said they were opposed to an increase (and were occasionally forced to admit they didn't know what the current level was).
On Tuesday, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) said he absolutely believed it would "harm small businesses," and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said he opposed an increase.
"I think that just drives up costs for consumers and it causes businesses to actually hire fewer workers," Barrasso said. "So I think it actually hurts the economy to artificially set a minimum wage price."
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he worried that raising the wage would make it tougher for young people, such as his 16-year-old daughter, to find a job.
"I'm glad to see people get paid more, but the more we mandate that, the harder it makes it on younger people to actually get their first entry-level job and start getting the experience that's going to be required," Lankford said.
The federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009, although 19 states have raised their own levels higher than that.
Raising the minimum wage was just one piece in the president's theme of fostering a thriving middle class. He also called for increased federal aid to help young people to go college, an end to wage discrimination against women, a reduction in health care costs and an expansion of preschool.
"Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool," Obama said. "And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America."
Obama also promoted the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ensure that women do not get paid less than male counterparts. He may have a tough time convincing the GOP to vote for that bill, however, as Republicans in the Senate blocked the legislation last year.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) is the only Republican in the group of freshmen women in the Senate. She said she was not yet sure how she would vote on the bill and wanted to see specific legislation.
Another new senator, Angus King (I-Maine), however, was heartened by what the president said throughout his address.
"I thought it was a very strong speech," said King. "I generally was impressed by the fact that the tone was right and comprehensive, and I think he was confronting the right issues."
Sabrina Siddiqui contributed reporting.