The State of the Obama's Union

President Obama has the power to make a practical difference in the lives of millions of workers and their families. He should declare bluntly that he aims to use that power, and dare Republicans to say that these workers are overpaid.
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President Obama's State of the Union Address, according to briefings and leaks, will emphasize the president's use of executive power to get the public's business done despite a divided and severely deadlocked Congress.

That's a good, overdue idea.

But the leaks do not mention one of the most important executive powers a president has to deal with a 30-year crisis of steadily declining living standards for most Americans. That is the president's right to issue executive orders setting standards for federal contractors. As the union federation Change to Win has pointed out, government contractors create more low wage jobs than Walmart and McDonalds combined.

Presidents going back to John Kennedy have issued executive orders requiring federal contractors not to racially discriminate in hiring and promotion. During World War II, President Roosevelt and his war production officials issued orders requiring that military contractors not undermine the right of workers to organize or join unions.

Today, there is an epidemic of violations of wage and hour laws, the Wagner Act, and the use of fictitious "independent contractors" to deny regular payroll employees their legal rights. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could require any company that bid on a government contract to be a decent, law-abiding employers.

Obama now supports an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. That's great, but as the rest of his speech will make all too clear, Congress is not about to pass this overdue legislation, or anything else Obama proposes.

President Obama has the power to make a practical difference in the lives of millions of workers and their families. He should declare bluntly that he aims to use that power, and dare Republicans to say that these workers are overpaid.

White House strategists have noticed the power of state level ballot initiatives on higher minimum wages, paid sick leave, and other issues that speak directly to the pocketbook needs of working families. Measures like these can raise turnout among base Democratic voters, and even bring over some Republicans and independents.

In 2004, unions and community organizers in Florida qualified a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage by a dollar. They implored that year's Democratic nominee, John Kerry, to vocally support it, maybe even to campaign with them on some street corners. Kerry declined.

The initiative carried every single Florida county. It ran two million votes ahead of Kerry and a million votes of George W. Bush, who won Florida and the election. If Kerry had vigorously embraced a higher minimum wage and the frustrations of working families, he might be enjoying the afterglow of eight years in the White House instead of serving as Obama's secretary of state.

In his year-end press conference, Obama hinted that living standards would be a major focus for 2014:

I think 2014 needs to be a year of action. We've got work to do to create more good jobs, to help more Americans earn the skills and education they need to do those jobs and to make sure that those jobs offer the wages and benefits that let families build a little bit of financial security. We still have the task of finishing the fix on our broken immigration system. We've got to build on the progress we've painstakingly made over these last five years with respect to our economy and offer the middle class and all those who are looking to join the middle class a better opportunity, and that's going to be where I focus all of my efforts in the year ahead.

That sounds good, but if all the president proposes is the usual stuff about better training and education, he will fall flat. His recent meeting with college presidents on affordable higher education was mainly a photo op. On Martin Luther King Day, Obama marked the occasion by dropping by a soup kitchen. Dr. King stood for struggle and justice, not charity.

If he is to have any sort of durable legacy on pocketbook issues and if Democrats are to avoid a rout in the 2014 mid-term elections, Obama has to do better.

The leaks and briefings about the president's State of the Union were silent on his power to issue executive orders. Let's hope that the president wanted to maintain the element of surprise.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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