President Barack Obama reminded Congress on Tuesday night that he has a pen, and he wielded it Wednesday as he came to U.S. Steel's Irvin plant to sign an order establishing a new plan for retirement savings.
The campaign-style appearance before an invited crowd of more than 1,000 plant workers and supporters was one of a series of post-State-of-the-Union appearances by the Democratic president intended to thaw the policy impasse in Washington, D.C., and restore the administration's momentum in the face of Republican resistance and his own lagging poll numbers.
After a brief tour of the sprawling West Mifflin plant, Mr. Obama renewed the appeals for progress he made before a joint session of Congress the night before. He closed by signing an order directing his Treasury secretary to establish rules for a new retirement plan, designed to make it easier for workers with modest incomes to begin saving.
Excerpts of President Obama's speech in West Mifflin
President Obama paid a visit to Pittsburgh a day after his State of the Union speech to talk about many of the issues he's highlighting, from growing manufacturing jobs to increasing the minimum wage. (Video by Andrew Rush; 1/29/2014)
After a flight from Maryland, where he had touted his call for a higher minimum wage, he arrived at the plant and was greeted by Mario Longhi, the U.S. Steel president and CEO; United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard and Anthony Bridge, the firm's vice president of engineering, research and development.
Sporting a white hard hat with his name on the front, the president then headed off on a brief plant tour conducted by Amy Smith-Yoder, the plant manager, and Kevin McKelvey, president of USW Local 2227.
They led him past a cold reducing mill, a large bank of machines that pare the thickness of steel sheets destined for products such as home appliances. Over the din of the machinery, Mr. Obama chatted with a handful of steelworkers before heading back to a makeshift stage where plant employes in orange and white hard hats formed a backdrop along with a massive red generator rotor and large gleaming rolls of steel.
To his left was a banner proclaiming "OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL" that hung from a crane spanning the cavernous unheated mill floor.
The president's speech reprised highlights of his address Tuesday night with renewed vows to make this a year of action, with or without the cooperation of his congressional adversaries.
"I don't know what their plans are, but I choose a year of action," he said, adding, "The truth is the middle class has been taking it on the chin since way before the financial crisis hit."
To remedy that, Mr. Obama urged lawmakers to pass a minimum wage increase, a call he had repeated earlier in the day at a stop at a Costco store in Lanham, Md., a Washington suburb, while pointing to his executive order raising the wage floor for federal contractors to the level he would like Congress to approve for all workers -- $10.10 an hour.
He ended his speech moving to a desk by the podium where he signed an order establishing the new retirement vehicle that he had promoted in his speech.
The idea is to offer a "starter" account to let people start saving even if they can't afford the large initial investment often needed for a private, commercial retirement account.
Dubbed "MyRA," the program will operate like a Roth IRA, so contributions to the plan will be made with after-tax dollars. That means account-holders could withdraw the funds at any time without paying additional taxes.
"And it's simple," Mr. Obama said. "Workers can contribute through automatic deductions from their paychecks, just like those of you who have an employer-sponsored pension fund can do. They can keep the same account even if they change jobs ... it's safe, these account balances will never go down in value. They're backed by the full faith and credit of the American government."
Along with his pitch for the new savings plan, Mr. Obama renewed his argument for the health care act whose troubled launch battered his popularity.
"And if you know somebody who isn't covered," he said, "call them up, sit them down, help them get covered at HealthCare.gov. by March 31st."
The president drew the loudest applause from the friendly audience, estimated by a plant fire marshal at 1,500, when he praised labor's role in securing their pay packages.
"Now the good news is, if you work here at U.S. Steel, I know you've got good benefits," he said. "And that's why I am a strong supporter of unions, because they fought for those benefits."
Mr. Obama and his entourage flew to the plant site on Marine One from the 911th Air Base adjacent to Pittsburgh International Airport. Hitching a ride along with him on Air Force One from Washington were Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.
The presidential road show was scheduled to continue today as Mr. Obama was to visit a General Electric plant in Milwaukee and speak at a high school in Nashville, Tenn.
Politics editor James O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published January 29, 2014 12:13 PM