Declaring that hard work should pay off for every American, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed an order to create starter retirement accounts that could be opened with as little as $25 but acknowledged there's a limit to the help he can give low-wage workers without congressional action.
Obama followed up Tuesday night's State of the Union address by traveling to two workplaces and to drive home the message from a pair of proposals aimed at boosting the personal finances of working class Americans.
Obama visited a Costco food warehouse in suburban Lanham, Md., where entry-level employees start at $11.50 an hour to tout his call for a $10.10 minimum wage. At a U.S. Steel Corp. plant outside Pittsburgh, he signed a presidential memorandum to create the "myRA" program, which he told employees would go toward "making sure that after a lifetime of hard work you can retire with some dignity."
Obama was trying to tap into Americans' frustrations with Washington that has been gridlocked amid partisan debate and an economy that's been slow to rebound from the recession. He accused Congress of wasting time when Americans need action.
"I could do more with Congress, but I'm not going to not do anything without Congress, not when it's about the basic security and dignity of American workers," Obama said.
The president then sat a wooden desk set up in the cavernous factory and signed the memorandum, then took it off stage and handed it to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, with a pat on the shoulder. Lew's initial task is to set up a pilot program with accounts available through some employers by the end of the year.
The program will operate like a Roth IRA, so contributions as little as $5 per paycheck would be made with after-tax dollars. That means account-holders could withdraw the funds at any time without paying additional taxes. The funds would be backed by U.S. government debt, similar to a savings option available to federal employees, and investors could keep the accounts if they switch jobs or convert them into private accounts.
"We think this fills a space that, very importantly, we can do by our own authority," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Pennsylvania. The idea is to encourage some of the millions of Americans who do not save for retirement to begin putting aside even small amounts of money. "When people start saving they get into the habit of saving," he said.
Another step Obama is making without Congress is to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts to $10.10 an hour. But he needs lawmakers to pass legislation to give all workers the same, up from the $7.25 current minimum wage.
"If you work hard, you should be able to pay your rent, buy your groceries, look after your kids," Obama said at Costco, close to the produce section where consumers could buy large containers of green seedless grapes and plantains. He joked that he could use a 50-pound bag of dog food for pets Sunny and Bo and that he'd like an 80-inch flat-screen TV for the Super Bowl.
The president praised Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley for pushing to raise the state's minimum wage to $10.10. "Ultimately Congress does have to do its part to catch up to the rest of the country on this," Obama said.
Democrats intend to make the minimum wage increase a potent issue in a number of states with competitive governor's races this fall. One of the biggest fights could come in Pennsylvania, where GOP Gov. Tom Corbett is among the most vulnerable governors facing re-election and has signaled that he won't support raising the state's $7.25-an-hour minimum wage. Democrats are expected to make a similar push in states with incumbent Republicans like Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin.
It's a tradition for presidents to travel after delivering their annual address to Congress, pitching grand legislative goals for the year ahead. Vice President Joe Biden amplified Obama's message with a round of television interviews and a speech at a community college in New York state.
On Thursday, Obama will visit a General Electric gas engines facility in Waukesha, Wis., not far from Milwaukee. He'll also speak at a high school in Nashville, Tenn.