Obama’s Minimum-Wage Gambit Puts Republicans on Defensive

The president’s push for $9 an hour has the GOP on the defensive. Eleanor Clift on the strategy behind the move. But this push could take the politics out of the perennial argument.

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It must be hard to remain stone-faced knowing you’re on television when the president says that anybody who works 40 hours a week shouldn’t be in poverty. Who could be against that?

That, at least, is how President Obama framed his call for an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour (up from the current $7.25). Seated right behind Obama for the State of the Union, and in full camera range, John Boehner managed to stay expressionless; he didn’t even pretend to empathize.

The next day the House Speaker dismissed Obama’s proposal, saying he’d been in the middle of periodic fights over hiking the minimum wage for 28 years, his entire political career, beginning in the Ohio House of Representatives. “When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” he said, staking out his opposition to Obama on an issue that once again leaves Republicans on the wrong side of popular opinion.

Raising the minimum wage polls well, with Democrats almost universally supporting it; independents, 74 percent; and Republicans, 50 percent, according to a Lake Research survey last year. With Obama on the road selling his proposals, Tony Fratto, a former Bush White House official, tweeted, “Has raising the minimum wage ever not polled well?” In a series of tweets, he proposed the GOP stop “fighting unpopular fights over and over again,” and instead outbid the Democrats and “insist on an $11 minimum wage.”

In a follow-up email, Fratto said his call for $11 was “mostly facetious,” but his larger point is that the “knee-jerk opposition to minimum-wage increases in my party … that’s a problem. Democrats know they can always call for a minimum-wage increase, and that will be popular … If this is simply a political exercise … take away the Democrat ability to claim a ‘win’ by effectively always outbidding them.”

There won’t be a bidding war with Republicans, and once you get beyond the political gamesmanship the White House makes a good case for advancing the idea of an increase in the minimum wage despite Boehner’s negative response. A senior White House official points out that in 1996, the Republican Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage that Bill Clinton signed into law. The previous year, then-Majority leader Dick Armey had vowed to oppose any increase with every fiber of his being.

President Bush signed the last increase into law in 2007 after Democrats regained control of both the House and Senate. “History has shown this is the type of idea that can get more traction than a lot of other things you might want to do about poverty,” says the White House official, attributing much of the rise in economic inequality to the erosion of the minimum wage through inflation. In austere economic times, hiking the minimum wage has the virtue of not costing the Treasury any money, though economists disagree over its effect on tax revenue and job creation.

The late Ted Kennedy worked with Bush on the ’07 increase, and he was the driving force in Congress over a period of decades to boost wages for the poorest Americans. If Obama’s proposal becomes law, increases in the minimum wage would be tied to the cost of living, ensuring regular increases and defusing the issue politically.

James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that apart from the political differences that are playing out around Obama’s proposal, the current economic climate is likely to thwart any increase in the minimum wage. Recent increases, in 1990, 1996, and 2007, all occurred when the economy was seen as expanding and Republicans didn’t push back as much. Now, says Sherk, conservatives worry about the “unintended consequences, that you hurt the people you want to help.”

Democrats and Republicans disagree about the economic consequences of a higher minimum wage, but they do agree on the politics, that it’s a loser for Republicans and mostly a winner for Democrats. “It should resonate,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “No one will win an election on this, but it rounds out with some base voters that he’s focused on their needs, too.” Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin agrees that it speaks to the Democratic base, but warns that it also risks deepening the divide between the business community and Democrats at a time when the GOP is in such disarray that an olive branch to business might be better politics. Either way, Democrats have set a proposal in motion that if it doesn’t pass in this Congress, it likely will in the next.