Obama Looks to Mayors to Bypass Congress on Economic Agenda

Updated on

President Barack Obama, ever in search of new ways to circumvent Congress, is turning to local governments.

Obama invited 280 mayors meeting in San Francisco on Friday to join him in trying to bypass Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill and attack income inequality, one of many presidential priorities that have been stymied in Congress.

“It’s so hard to get anything through Congress,” Obama said. “Even when we’re talking about issues that outside of Washington the majority of Americans agree upon.”

Obama’s frustration with Capitol Hill was evident most recently on Thursday, when he publicly admonished lawmakers for their unwillingness to consider gun-control legislation after a shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people. He has also lately seen his trade agenda stalled by opponents in Congress, most from his own party.

Obama said mayors could engage their citizens to “move public opinion” on gun control. He also thanked mayors for choosing “reality” over “ideology.”

“Reality is a stubborn thing,” he said. “Facts, evidence, reason.”

White House aides say the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting was an ideal opportunity to press the president’s agenda with a more sympathetic audience. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters before the speech that it was a chance to move “forward on priorities helping the middle class despite inaction in Congress.”

The president urged mayors to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick leave, and expand childcare and pre-kindergarten education -- all issues with little traction among congressional Republicans.

“We’ve still got a lot more work to do,” Obama said. “We’ve got to keep pushing to grow our economy.”

Pay Raises

The administration has already had some success convincing local politicians to expand worker benefits and education programs.

Since Obama called for an increase to the minimum wage in 2013, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed raises. Large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, IKEA, and Gap Inc. have also pledged to increase the lowest hourly wage for their employees.

Gap announced this week it planned to close 175 North American stores and eliminate 250 jobs in its corporate headquarters. Schultz said those struggles shouldn’t be linked to wages.

Preschool Funding

“Most of the data shows that raising the minimum wage increases productivity and increases a company’s bottom line, in addition to supporting its workers,” Schultz said.

Thirty-four states have increased preschool funding since the president began lobbying Congress to fund universal pre-K.

Obama urged mayors to lobby Congress to abandon budget cuts known as the sequester. He said he would not sign annual spending bills “at sequestration levels” or agree to fund military budgets while cutting money for local governments.

“Talk to your members of Congress to get rid of the sequester once and for all because it’s harming our cities and harming our country,” he said.

Pelosi Praise

The conference was also the first public event attended by both the president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after the California Democrat led a rebellion against the president’s efforts to secure fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals.

Both the White House and Pelosi have said there is no lingering tension between the two, and the top House Democrat lavished praise on Obama’s economic record.

“It’s important to note middle-class economics have produced results,” Pelosi said, touting the falling unemployment rate and growth in the stock market under Obama.

Obama responded with a warm embrace as he took the stage, planting a kiss on Pelosi’s cheeck and thanking her for her leadership.

The pair are scheduled to appear together at a fundraiser at the home of billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer later Friday.

The president isn’t alone in his party in recognizing value in courting local officials. Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state now campaigning to succeed Obama, will speak to the mayors on Saturday. White House officials say they do not expect the pair to meet while in San Francisco.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE