Here's how President Obama will help the poor instead of waiting for Congress: an increase to the minimum wage for federal contractors and, much more modestly, a request that employers not discriminate against people who've been out of work. And that may be as good as 2014 gets for those who are struggling.
With Obama's fifth State of the Union address only about 12 hours away, specific details of his proposals have begun to leak out. We knew on Monday that he'd announce plans to take action on the economy while sidestepping Congress, and now we see how he'll do it.
Obama has repeatedly called for an increase to the federal minimum wage, a proposal that hasn't gotten any traction in the House. So, The New York Times reports that Obama will sign an executive order that immediately increases the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. Last September, a group of Democratic senators wrote a letter to Obama, asking that he consider exactly such a move. In it, they outlined the scale of the low-paid federal workforce: about 28 percent of the 2 million contractors receive under $12 an hour; over 70 percent of those polled in one survey earned less than $10.
It's not yet clear what the additional cost to the government will be, nor is it clear how much the increase will boost local economies. Speaker John Boehner has already weighed in: "It will affect absolutely no one." So there's your point-counterpoint on the numbers.
Obama and Democrats have also pushed to renew unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people who've been out of work for more than half a year. The president can't reverse the expiration of those benefits without Congressional action, so instead, according to The Wall Street Journal, he'll do the next best thing: work with companies to hire the long-term unemployed. He's asked executives at Xerox, Lockheed, and Procter & Gamble, among others, to pledge not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed in hiring. At New York, Jonathan Chait outlines the problem: "a candidate with relevant experience who has been out of work a long time is far less likely to be called back for a [job] posting than a candidate out of work a short time and no relevant experience." There is bias against hiring people who've been out of work; Obama is asking that this unintentional bias be intentionally overruled.
The trickiest part of this for Obama is that he's not very popular right now. A new Journal/NBC News poll shows that he's less popular entering his presidency's sixth year than any president since the 1930s besides George Bush. (That data point is a little misleading, since only seven presidents have had sixth years since FDR, but still.) The poll also asked people to use a word to describe the state of the country, in typical State of the Union fashion. The winner? "Divided." Then, in descending order: troubled, deteriorating, recovering, broken. Yikes. "[T]he state of the union is the best we have seen in years," Bank of the West's chief economist said to the Times, but he apparently wasn't among those polled.
The Washington Post's John Sides thinks that the speech won't do anything to turn Obama's poll numbers around, which is probably fair, since fewer and fewer people pay attention to the speech. (Last year's was the lowest-watched since 2000.) But also because Obama's actions will reinforce the goals of his Democratic base while fitting easily into the Republican argument that he's exceeding his authority. The state of the union is divided, indeed.