President Obama urged Congress and employers to broaden benefits for families, arguing that paid leave for new parents and good-quality child care are basic needs for today's workforce, not "frills."
But with Congress unlikely to mandate major new benefits any time soon, Obama focused on urging business executives to change their policies on their own and on small-scale initiatives that he can enact without congressional action.
"The bottom line is, 21st century families deserve 21st century workplaces," Obama said at the White House meeting Monday, often to cheers from the audience of lawmakers, activists and business executives. "As long as Congress refuses to act on these policies, we're going to need you to raise your voices."
The daylong summit focused attention on the administration's economic agenda ahead of November's midterm congressional elections, though Obama tried to head off criticism that its main target was female voters
"All too often, these issues are thought of as women's issues, which I guess means you can scoot 'em aside a little bit," Obama said. "But anything that makes life harder for women makes life harder for families."
Republicans asserted that Obama is only trying to use the summit as a crutch for the midterm elections. If Obama were really serious, they said, he would work with Republicans on workplace flexibility legislation already in Congress.
"It's unfortunate that President Obama and the Democrats see women only as an electoral opportunity," said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Although some companies offer paid family leave, the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act requires only that employers provide unpaid leave for medical and family reasons.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have introduced legislation that would require employers to provide as much as 12 weeks of paid leave for medical and family reasons. The national program would be financed through a trust fund in the Social Security payroll deductions on employees and employers.
Obama has not endorsed the bill, but a spokesman for DeLauro said the lawmaker has encouraged Obama to back the proposed legislation, even though he had pledged during his 2008 campaign not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.
The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn't offer paid maternity leave, Obama said, and he urged employers to change their policies.
"That is not the list you want to be on," he said.
Six years ago, after taking the reins as president, Obama instituted six weeks of paid leave for his workers who have newborns or ailing family members or who are sick or injured. He doesn't have the power to extend paid leave to all federal workers without congressional approval.
On Monday, the president pledged to sign a memorandum directing federal agencies to allow workers to adjust their work schedules without fear of retaliation. Another initiative would require the Labor Department to make quality child care available to people enrolling in job-training programs.
Obama said he's now lucky to "live above the store" at the White House, enabling him to have dinner with his family most nights. He said he was lucky in his daughters' early years because he was able to take time off work to be there for "the 2 a.m. feeding," just "getting to know them and making sure they know me."
Obama took four working parents to lunch at a Chipotle restaurant before his address, and he later met with business leaders who have adopted family-friendly policies.
"Part of the purpose of this summit is to make clear you're not alone," Obama said, adding that these problems "cannot just be fixed by working harder or being a better parent. All too often, they're the result of outdated policies and old ways of thinking."