WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. — He has taken to saying he has a pen and a phone that he can use to work around Republicans in Congress, but President Obama also has a jet and a helicopter.
He used them both Wednesday as he set off on a two-day traveling sales tour to promote his State of the Union agenda to increase economic mobility for American workers, stopping first at a Costco store in Lanham, Md., just outside the Beltway, and then at a U.S. Steel plant here.
“Wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity for more families, regardless of what Congress does, that’s what I’m going to do,” Obama told steelworkers gathered on a factory floor. “I am determined to work with all of you and citizens all across this country on the defining project of our generation, and that is to restore opportunity for every single person who’s willing to work hard and take responsibility in this country.”
Obama called on Congress to raise the minimum wage and ensure that all working Americans have access to retirement savings accounts. But underscoring his pledge to act on his own, he said he would raise the minimum wage for some federal contract workers and he signed an order to create a new federal savings plan.
The trip, though, is also about the president’s campaign to restore his credibility with the public, which slipped dramatically last year, in large part because of the disastrous rollout of his healthcare plan.
That political baggage could burden his party as it tries to hold on to the Senate this election year. With a presidential agenda focused on narrowing the gap between rich and poor, the White House hopes to empower Democratic candidates and pressure Republicans to pass some of the president’s initiatives.
But Obama’s low approval ratings have diminished the reach of his microphone. And although most Americans say that they believe the system unfairly favors the wealthy, less than half say that reducing income inequality is a priority.
“Other than the veto and executive orders, the bully pulpit may be all Obama has left to influence the course of events,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. But he suggested that would take the president only so far. “In the end, a speech is just a speech. It can’t change political reality, and the current reality was set in November 2012, when divided government emerged from the election.”
Obama plans to make frequent use of his portable pulpit, with trips around the country tentatively planned almost every week for the next few months. Moving public opinion will be a challenge, but the kinetic schedule could create an impression of an engaged leader making things happen. And when he’s traveling, he’s not stuck in Washington, sniping at a Congress hobbled by the partisan divide and the deep splits within the Republican Party.
Republicans, who have bridled at the president’s pen-and-phone rhetoric, dismissed his post-State of the Union travels.
“We’ve seen this road show before, and it never amounts to anything but empty rhetoric and zero results,” said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, describing the president’s plan for his sixth year in the White House as playing “small ball” with “rehashed ideas.”
But with a gridlocked Congress, Obama is intent on using whatever tools he can find. Step one: stretch the nation’s momentary attention on his State of the Union address into a communique lasting several days.
On Wednesday, Obama took two of the ideas he painted in broad strokes in his Tuesday address and added more detail — or, at least, more argument.
In Maryland, he focused on a key piece of his plan to take executive action, his decision to order federal contractors to pay at least $10.10 an hour, and he called on Congress to raise the $7.25 national minimum wage.
“Nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” Obama told about 50 Costco employees. “That’s why I firmly believe it’s time to give America a raise.”
The president praised Costco for paying entry-level employees $11.50 an hour. He gave a shout-out to co-founder Jim Sinegal, a major Democratic donor and Obama supporter, and Chief Executive Craig Jelinek, who has backed a higher minimum wage and told Seattle Weekly this month that $15 an hour would be a fair minimum wage.
In Pennsylvania, Obama talked about his plans to establish a new retirement savings product — MyRA, a play on IRA, the abbreviation for individual retirement account. The Treasury Department does not need congressional approval to establish such accounts. They will be guaranteed by the U.S. government. Workers will be able to start an account with $25 and contribute as little as $5 through automatic payroll deductions.
On the factory floor, Obama signed a presidential memorandum to set up a pilot program by the end of the year and handed it to Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew. “Here, here’s your memo,” he said.
The MyRA idea fits the template for the new Obama strategy: take a small step by executive action and call on Congress to make it bigger. In a surprising sign that it might work, Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative Texas Republican, said Wednesday, “That could be something that I would be eager to work with him on.”