Members of Maine’s congressional delegation largely praised President Obama’s focus Tuesday on strengthening the middle class and restoring opportunities for low-income Americans.
Obama hit various themes popular with the Democratic base in his State of the Union speech, calling on Congress to increase the minimum wage and overhaul immigration laws but also vowing to use executive powers in the absence of legislative action.
“I thought the tone was good,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who supported the call to increase the minimum wage and for reforming job training programs. “There was all of this press beforehand that he was going to be confrontational … and there were a few of those moments. But generally it was nonpartisan and talked about issues that we need to work together on.”
Maine’s only Republican member of the delegation, Sen. Susan Collins, said she shared the president’s desire to strengthen job training programs. Collins said she was also pleased to hear he plans to launch an initiative to encourage people to save more for retirement.
But Collins was concerned that president said he may bypass Congress on some issues.
“While the president has called on both parties to work together to tackle other important issues, I am very concerned that it appears the President is willing to circumvent Congress in an attempt to counteract the frustrating gridlock in Washington,” Collins said in a statement. “This approach … will only serve to heighten partisan tensions and exacerbate the problem.”
King said he also shares those reservations but didn’t not believe Obama “went overboard.”
“I’m uncomfortable with the president assuming additional authority, but there wasn’t as much of that tonight as I had expected,” King said.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, said Obama’s comments on raising the minimum wage were a highlight and that he laid out a series of ideas that Congress could pass on a bipartisan basis. She also praised the president for urging extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.
“These are very real issues to people in Maine and I thought this is the kind of speech that would really hit home with the people there,” Pingree said in an interview. “Given what a challenging year we have had in Congress, he did a very good job inspiring us to keep working and get something done.”
Maine’s minimum wage is currently $7.50 an hour, 25 cents higher than the federal minimum.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud also welcomed the president’s comments on minimum wage and his call for expanding job training opportunities and strengthening pre-K education.
“I’m very pleased that the president talked about income equality and the middle class,” Michaud said. “I definitely will be looking forward to see whether he can put policies in place that will actually implement that.”
But Michaud, a 2nd District Democrat who is running for governor this year, took issue with the Obama administration’s trade policy.
Dana Connors, who heads the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said it was “a strong message by a very powerful speaker … intended to give people help but also hope.” Among the highlights for Connors were the president’s focus on job growth, helping small businesses expand and addressing the “skills gap” that has been a problem in Maine.
But Connors said the minimum wage proposal will be controversial and said it was too early to speculate how Maine businesses would react.
“It will be an issue that will divide Congress and divide people, but I think that if there is going to be an increase, it is better to have it at the national level where businesses are not competing state to state.”
But Garrett Martin, executive director of the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, said the president’s proposals would create jobs and help stimulate Maine’s economy.
“Maine’s current $7.50 per hour minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was forty years ago and substantially lower than its peak in 1968,” Martin wrote in an email. “The proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would boost our economy and improve the ability of one in five or 120,000 Maine workers to make ends meet based on analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.”
The president also made reference to two major free trade deals under negotiation and urged Congress to authorize the administration to fast-track those deals. Michaud has been a vocal critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal that the White House is finalizing with nations in the Asia-Pacific region.
“I see some of the direction of where he is going as contrary to what he said in his speech, particularly when you look at the fast-track trade legislation,” Michaud said. “The outsourcing of the middle class overseas is a huge concern that I have. I agree with the president on ‘Made in America’ but quite frankly I haven’t seen the president move aggressively in that regard.”
In his address, Obama said that “upward mobility has stalled” across the country as rising corporate profits and stock prices led to record earnings for those “at the top” while “average wages have barely budged.”
Maine’s income gap is smaller than the national average but has outpaced some states in recent years. From 2008 to 2012, the state moved from having the 11th smallest income gap to the 15th smallest, according to federal statistics.
At the same time, the median household income in the state fell 2.4 percent – from $50,363 to $49,158 – from 2008 to 2012, after adjusting for inflation. Nationally, household incomes fell 4.9 percent during that time, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
The president announced that Vice President Joe Biden will lead an effort to reform job-training programs. Specifically, he said he would push for more on-the-job training.
That’s a message likely to draw bipartisan support, including in Maine where Republican Gov. Paul LePage has made job training a high priority. Maine business owners and labor officials said that even during the depths of the recession, there were not enough high-skilled workers to fill vacancies.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at [email protected]