New Britain – President Barack Obama told a pep-rally audience of local college students and politicians from across New England that his campaign for a federal minimum wage of $10.10 was central to a broader call to address economic inequality in the United States.
“Average incomes have not gone up. Too many Americans are working harder than ever just to keep up. So as I said at my State of the Union address, we’ve got to reverse those trends,” Obama said. “It is a central task for all of us to build an economy that works for everybody, not just for some.”
Obama spoke to a standing-room audience of about 3,000 at Detrick Gymnasium at Central Connecticut State University. He was introduced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose defense of the president’s economic policies against criticism by Gov. Bobby Jindal outside the White House was seen by many here as a spur for the president’s visit.
“There is a time to lead and a time to follow. I will follow this president on the great policies he will put forward, but New England needs to lead on this issue,” Malloy said.
On stage were three other governors, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, all states whose minimum wages exceed the federal minimum of $7.25. All four have agreed to push for a raise in their states’ minimums.
“The governors of New England stand united in working for working families — and a working wage,” Malloy said. “We get it,” he said of New England. “A rising tide should lift all boats.”
The crowd gave the president a raucous greeting, ignoring his invitation for those in the bleacher to sit and be comfortable. Obama has run his last campaign, but the rally had the energy of a campaign stop.
He took the stage in a playful mood.
“I couldn’t help but notice your Student Government Association logo, which has a gavel –- and a pitchfork, which is pretty intense,” Obama said, laughing. “And I wish some folks in Congress used the gavel more. Less pitchfork.”
He noted his unusual entourage of four governors, who met him when he deplaned from Air Force One at the Air National Guard base at Bradley International Airport, then joined him for lunch and a photo op in downtown New Britain before the rally.
“This is like a governor supergroup. It’s like the Justice League of governors,” Obama said. “I’d call them the New England Patriots, but that name is already taken.”
Obama, who has been stymied by a House Republican majority on the minimum wage, appeared sensitive to GOP complaints that the Democratic president is engaging in class warfare when he talks about economic inequality.
“We don’t resent success. We are thrilled with the opportunities that America affords. Somebody goes out there, starts a business, invents a new product, provides a new service, that’s what drives our economy. That’s why this free-market economy is the most dynamic on Earth,” Obama said.
Obama said there is no disagreement on that point.
“But what we also believe is that nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” he said to applause. “That violates a basic sense of who we are. And that’s why it’s time to give America a raise.”
The applause grew louder, and Obama repeated the line.
“It is time to give America a raise,” he said. “Now is the time. Now is the time.”
Obama spoke to the larger business community, praising Wade’s Dairy in Bridgeport, a family-owned company whose owner, Doug Wade, is an outspoken proponent of a higher state and federal minimum wage.
“One of the secrets to their success is that they treat their employees like part of the family. So Doug pays his own workers fairly,” Obama said. “But he goes a step further than that — he writes editorials, he talks to fellow business leaders, he meets with elected officials to make the case for a higher minimum wage for everybody. And keep in mind, Doug spent most of his life as a registered Republican. This is not about politics. This is about common sense.”
Wade, who met the president backstage, appeared with the labor secretary two weeks ago at a forum in Hartford with the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.
Obama praised the five members of Congress on stage, all Connecticut Democrats committed to voting for a higher minimum wage. Then he spoke to the television audience.
“Anybody who’s watching at home, you deserve to know where your elected official stands,” Obama said.
He urged them to ask.
“If they say yes, say, ‘Thanks. Great job.’ We need encouragement, too, elected officials,” he said, smiling. He paused. “If they say no, you should be polite, but you should say, ‘Why not?’ Ask them to reconsider. Ask them to side with the majority of Americans. Instead of saying no, for once, say yes.”
The president spoke for 30 minutes, finishing at 2:51 p.m. As a band played marching music, Obama stepped off the stage and shook hands with spectators.
His next scheduled stop was a fundraiser in Boston.
Even lunch was on message.
On the way to his rally Obama stopped for lunch at Café Beauregard, a New Britain eatery that pays its staff above Connecticut’s $8.70 minimum wage.
His dining companions included Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who visited Hartford two weeks ago, and the four governors who joined him on stage.
A few spectators screamed as the president and his party entered the restaurant, a stop not on his public schedule. Customers in a nearby barbershop, Courtside Cuts, spilled out to the sidewalk on Main Street.
“They started seeing the motorcade, and we came outside,” said Gervais Barger of Plainville.
At CCSU, a standing-room-only crowd waited in the Detrick Gymnasium, home court to the Blue Devils. The president was well-briefed. The students screamed as he yelled out, “Go Blue Devils!”
They yelled again when he recognized two alumni: U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, and New Britain’s recently elected Republican mayor, Erin Stewart.
Obama is in a region that has already accepted a higher minimum wage. Every New England state except New Hampshire has a minimum higher than the federal standard of $7.25, led by Vermont’s $8.73 and followed by Connecticut’s $8.70, Massachusetts’ and Rhode Island’s $8, and Maine’s $7.50.
With the backing of Malloy and the top leaders of the General Assembly, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, the legislature was already expected to pass a bill raising the state’s minimum in phases to $10.10 by January 2017.
“I think we can always use a boost,” Williams said.
“I think the president’s leadership on this issue is going to help move us across the finish line on the minimum wage issue,” Sharkey said.
Sharkey said the rally was a tough ticket. He estimated that about 20 House Democrats were in attendance, but others could not be accommodated.
Lori Pelletier, the leader of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, sat behind the president, just off center stage. Pelletier, who got her invitation Tuesday night, did not get a chance to talk to Obama.
“If I had, I would have told him that the ticket to the middle class is a union card,” Pelletier said.
Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, the co-chairman of a legislative committee that approved the state minimum wage bill Tuesday, said he appreciated the president’s tone.
“It was nice when he spoke about having a higher percentage of people of all political affiliations in favor of the minimum wage,” Tercyak said. “We need to start recognizing each other and acknowledge that the loud people yelling at each other are a minority.”
But Democrats were quick to note the partisan value of a trip here by the president.
“It just reminds people that Democrats are the advocates for working families in the state,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.
The president was accompanied on Air Force One by all five of Connecticut’s members of the U.S. House: Larson, Joe Courtney of the 2nd District, Rosa L. DeLauro of the 3rd, Jim Himes of the 4th and Elizabeth H. Esty of the 5th.
Obama’s visit came a day after his job approval in the state hit an all-time low, but Connecticut still is well-primed to applaud his campaign for a higher minimum wage.
Even Tom Foley, the leading Republican candidate for governor, endorses raising the minimum wage, a position he reiterated in a statement issued hours after Quinnipiac University released a poll Tuesday showing that a higher wage was supported by 71 percent of voters.
“The minimum wage is a fairness issue, so I support raising the minimum wage nationally to help people who struggle the most to earn a living,” Foley said.
Andrew Markowski, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Obama’s plan only would depress the economy.
“Connecticut’s economy has lagged the national economy in terms of job creation and growth, and it’s highly unlikely that another big increase in labor costs will improve that condition,” he said.
Obama carried Connecticut by double digits in two presidential elections, helping Himes unseat Republican Chris Shays in 2008 and Esty to win the open 5th District seat in 2012. But the new poll showed him with a negative approval rating here for the first time: Only 45 percent of voters approve of his job performance and 51 percent disapprove.
The only notes of disapproval Wednesday were outside: One set of demonstrators urged him to block the Keystone pipeline, another demanded he better defend the Ukraine, and a third protested the number of deportations by his administration.
This story includes White House press pool reports.