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'Revving' economy calls for higher wages: Obama

MILWAUKEE -- U.S. President Barack Obama renewed his push for Congress to raise the U.S. minimum wage Monday in a buoyant accounting of the economy's “revving” performance, delivered on behalf of Democrats opening their fall campaigns for the midterm congressional elections.

“America deserves a raise,” he told a union crowd in Milwaukee, vowing to keep a hard sell on Congress in much the way he once courted his wife. “I just wore her down,” he cracked.

Timing his push to Labor Day, the traditional start of the autumn campaign, Obama aggressively drew attention to recent economic gains, setting aside past caution on that subject.

“By almost every measure the American economy and American workers are better off than when I took office,” he said, rattling off a string of improving economic indicators even while acknowledging not all people are benefiting. “The engines,” he said, “are revving a little louder.”

It was, at least indirectly, a pep talk for Democrats facing tough races in a nation still gripped with economic anxieties.

The emphasis on the minimum wage is designed to draw campaign contrasts with Republicans, many of whom maintain that an increase would hurt small businesses and slow down hiring. No one expects Congress to act on it before the November elections.

Despite the absence of a federal increase, 13 states raised their minimum wages at the beginning of this year. Those states have added jobs at a faster pace than those that did not raise the wage, providing a counterpoint to a Congressional Budget Office report earlier this year that projected that a higher minimum wage of US$10.10 an hour could cost the nation 500,000 jobs.

Until now, Obama and his White House aides had been reluctant to draw too much attention to positive economic trends, worried that some may prove illusory or that, even if they hold, many working Americans continue to live on the edge of poverty and take no comfort in the upswing.

But White House officials believe it is time to highlight recent improvements, in part to strengthen a difficult political environment for Democrats and to counter public perceptions that are eroding the president's public approval. Officials say Obama's most compelling case is to compare the economy now to what he inherited in 2009 in the aftermath of a near Wall Street meltdown.

The White House is encouraging Democrats to draw attention to the recovery as they head into the November mid-term elections.

In an August memo to House and Senate Democrats, Obama's top two economic advisers underscored the positive news: more than 200,000 jobs created per month for six consecutive months, a six-year high in auto sales, second-quarter economic growth that exceeded expectations and an expanding manufacturing sector.

The unemployment rate stands at 6.2 percent, dropping 1.1 points over the past year, and the stock market has nearly tripled in five years.

Even so, there is still significant weakness in the labor market, underscored by the long-term unemployed. Labor participation has dropped. As well, real hourly wages fell from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014 for all income groups, except for a 2-cent increase for the lowest income level, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

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