By Christi Parsons
Tribune Washington Bureau
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 Barack 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 in Pennsylvania.
“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 health-care 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.”