President Obama on Wednesday appealed to Congress to raise the minimum wage, telling lawmakers they had a "clear choice" to make as the Senate readied debate on his proposal to hike hourly wages to $10.10 per hour.
"You can give America the shaft or you can give it a raise," Obama said during the speech on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.
"Politically, you would think people would rush to do this," Obama said during the campaign-style tour through Michigan. "Nearly three in four Americans support raising the minimum wage."
Obama made his case by invoking beloved Michigan institutions, including the Ford Motor Company. He noted that when company founder Henry Ford significantly increased wages for workers in the early days of the auto industry, "fellow business leaders thought he had lost his mind."
But ultimately, Obama said, Ford's move increased productivity and worker retention, while building out the middle class.
"It meant that the workers could afford to buy the cars they were building," Obama said. "So by paying your workers more, you were building your own markets for your product."
"Fair wages and higher profits can go hand-in-hand," Obama said.
Obama also used his remarks to praise Zingerman's, an Ann Arbor, Mich., delicatessen that pays its workers above the current $7.25 federal minimum wage. During a visit to the shop for Reuben sandwiches before his speech, Obama and Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who is running for the state's open Senate seat, chatted about the minimum wage plan with three Ann Arbor residents.
"If you pay people well, there’s more money in everybody’s pockets, and everybody does better,” Obama said while visiting the restaurant.
Obama's remarks came as Democrats are looking to hold the line on an upcoming Senate vote.
So far, Senate Democrats have struggled to gather enough votes to pass a bill that would set the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, the president’s preferred level. Earlier this week, Senate Democrats indicated they could target a lower rate that would not open them up to charges that the hike would costs jobs.
A nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report released earlier this year estimated half a million jobs would be lost if lawmakers passed the president’s proposal. The White House has disputed the analysis, arguing it does not account for enough factors and pointing out similar hikes in the past have not reduced employment levels.
An aide to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday seized on the report to discount the president's proposal.
“The president’s plan would increase costs for consumers and eliminate jobs for those who need them the most," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. "The House is going to continue focusing on our plan to protect workers’ hours and create jobs, not the president’s plan to destroy them.”
The trip to Michigan appeared a clear signal that the White House was pivoting back to the president's economic agenda, after recent weeks have been dominated by the foreign policy crisis in Ukraine and the final days of the ObamaCare open enrollment.
Obama did brag that the administration had signed up enough Americans to fill up the Big House — Michigan's famed football stadium — 65 times, but his remarks largely focused on drawing a contrast with congressional Republicans.
In a tribute to the creative sandwich names at Zingerman's, he said Republican policies could be described as "the Stink Burger" or the "Meanwich." And he accused lawmakers of wasting time with votes to repeal his signature healthcare law, rather than focusing on the economy.
"It’s like that movie 'Groundhog Day.' Except it's not funny," Obama said.
After leaving Ann Arbor, Obama headed to his hometown of Chicago, where he hopes to bolster Democratic electoral odds through high-dollar fundraising.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama will attend a pair of Democratic National Committee fundraisers while in the Windy City.
The first, an intimate gathering with about 25 donors at the Chicago Cut Steakhouse, will be hosted by Mesirow Financial Chairman and CEO Richard Price. Tickets run as high as $32,400 per person.
Later, the president will headline a dinner for around 55 donors contributing up to $10,000 at the ritzy Lincoln Park home of Craig Freedman and Grace Tsao-Wu, major fundraisers for the president.