Obama arrives as Connecticut embraces his message, not him

President Obama as he gave a radio address last month in support of a higher minimum wage, a message he takes to Connecticut on Wednesday.

White House

President Obama as he gave a radio address last month in support of a higher minimum wage, a message he brings to Connecticut Wednesday.

President Obama’s visit here Wednesday comes a day after his job approval in the state hit an all-time low, but Connecticut still is a blue state well-primed to applaud his call for a higher minimum wage, an issue Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other Democrats see as a boost to their re-election campaigns in 2014.

A legislative committee voted Tuesday along party lines to endorse a proposal by Malloy that could make Connecticut the first state to reach Obama’s goal of a $10.10 minimum wage, a concept that a new poll shows is overwhelmingly popular here among Democrats and independents.

“I’m proud to say Connecticut is leading the charge,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District.

DeLauro spoke Tuesday in the second of two conference calls arranged by the White House in recent days to promote the president’s visit to Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, where he will be joined by four New England governors and at least one member of Congress.

“I’m very excited that President Obama will be coming to New Britain tomorrow to highlight the great work we’re doing here in Connecticut, which is helping lead the country on fair wages,” said U.S. Rep. Elizabeth H. Esty, D-5th District, who will be attending the event in her district.

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 showing 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.

Obama easily carried Connecticut in two presidential elections, helping U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, unseat Republican Chris Shays in 2008 and Esty to win the open 5th District seat in 2012. But the new Quinnipiac poll shows him with a negative approval rating here for the first time in his presidency.

Only 45 percent of voters approve of his job performance and 51 percent disapprove. Among independents, the split was 38 percent to 57 percent.

But the Democratic base still is enthused about the president, even more so about the prospect of a higher minimum wage. According to Quinnipiac, an increase in the recently raised state minimum of $8.70 is supported by 93 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans.

Of voters who support an increase, 59 percent favor $10.10 and 28 percent would go even higher.

Malloy, a first-term Democrat facing re-election this fall, became one of the president’s biggest defenders on the issue after rebuking Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal outside the White House last week for characterizing a minimum-wage increase as waving a white flag on the economy. Video of the encounter went viral.

Democrats here said they suspect that the confrontation played a role in Obama’s choice of Connecticut for a presidential visit. Malloy and Governors Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Peter Shumlin of Vermont defended the president and promoted his visit on a conference call Sunday.

“It’s not Democrats who have made this a partisan issue. It’s Republicans who have made this a partisan issue,” Malloy said.

The three governors and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts are scheduled to appear with Obama at CCSU.

The president can expect a receptive audience Wednesday, but there are no congressional votes to pick up here for his proposal to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to $10.10 in three steps. All five U.S. House members and both senators already support the proposal.

No one on the conference call Tuesday responded directly when asked how the Connecticut visit advances the issue in Congress, alluding instead to the state’s willingness to raise its own $8.70 minimum in steps to $10.10 by January 2017. Without the legislation endorsed by the Labor and Public Employees Committee, the state minimum is set to increase next January to $9.

“Connecticut leads the way. That’s why we’re in Connecticut,” DeLauro said.

DeLauro, Esty and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, were joined on the call Tuesday by Gene Sperling, who is stepping down this week as a senior White House adviser on economic policy.

“For the president, this is about basic values and basic economic growth,” said Sperling, who made small talk on the call about his Connecticut connection. He is a Yale Law School classmate of Esty.

Despite a Congressional Budget Office report that warned a $10.10 minimum could prompt business to shed as many as 500,000 jobs, Sperling said the White House is convinced that a raise would lift 2 million people from poverty and stimulate the economy with their added buying power.

“It’s about doing something about reducing economic inequality,” Sperling said.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is unlikely to call a vote on the increase in the House, allowing Democrats to use minimum wage as a wedge issue in congressional races.

Sperling said there is an easy way to depoliticize the issue before the campaign season: “Pass it quickly, pass it early. Give people a raise right now.”

DeLauro said the campaign by Obama and the congressional Democrats is about policy, not politics; it is an effort to persuade the Republicans who voted for the last increase during George W. Bush’s last term to press Boehner to allow a vote.

“All parties believe no one working full time should have to raise a family in poverty,” DeLauro said. “That is a central value of who we are as a nation. There is no attempt to politicize the effort. There is an attempt to get us to a conclusion.”

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