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In Ann Arbor, Obama Gathers Support For Minimum Wage Hike


Democrats and Republicans each have their own ideas about what the defining issue of the midterm election should be. For the Republicans it's the Affordable Care Act. President Obama claimed victory this week as more than seven million people signed up for health insurance under the law, hoping to take that club out of the GOP's bag.

Yesterday he was setting up an issue Democrats hope is a winner in November. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the president once again made a pitch to raise the federal minimum wage.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Zingerman's is an Ann Arbor landmark. It's known for its massive sandwiches. And it also pays its workers more than the minimum wage, which made it an obvious choice for a presidential stop, at lunchtime.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So I'm going to get the Reuben.

KEITH: Obama ate half a sandwich and a pickle while talking to three low-wage workers. Then it was on to a gym at the University of Michigan, where you'd never know his poll numbers were underwater. Obama pushed for Congress to raise federal minimum wage to 10.10 an hour.

OBAMA: They've got to make a clear choice. Talk the talk about valuing hard working families or walk the walk and actually value hardworking families.


OBAMA: You've got a choice. You can give America the shaft or you can give it a raise.

KEITH: The Senate could vote on a minimum wage bill as soon as next week. But it is hard to imagine the Republican controlled House will ever take it up. At about the same time the president was speaking, in a House committee room California congressman Ken Calvert delivered what amounted to a Republican rebuttal.

REPRESENTATIVE KEN CALVERT: Minimum wage was never meant to be a livable wage. It was meant to get people started, give them a job and hopefully they do good work and we can increase their salary later on. But having a federal minimal wage increase is, certainly in this economy, is not - this is not the right time and I don't think it's the right way to do it.

KEITH: Back at the University of Michigan gymnasium, President Obama was talking about the GOP position too, as a way to rile up the crowd.

OBAMA: In fact, some want to just scrap the minimum wage. One House Republican said it's outlived its usefulness. No, that's what he said.


OBAMA: Others said - no, no, no. Don't boo. Organize.


KEITH: This is a twist on something he said a lot on the campaign trail in 2012. And in a way, Obama was back on the trail in Michigan, as promoter in chief. He was joined by Michigan Congressman Gary Peters, who is in the midst of a competitive Senate race, a rare appearance this year by a Senate candidate with the president.

And Obama nodded to an effort to put a minimum wage initiative on the November ballot here. Michael Heaney is a political science professor at the University of Michigan.

MICHAEL HEANEY: He knows that this is an issue the Democratic voters care about more than Republicans care about. By going to the public, by using the bully pulpit, the president is generating that grassroots support, and he expects that that will spill over into increased enthusiasm or at least less apathy during the midterm elections.

KEITH: And using what's left of his presidential bully pulpit is Obama's best shot at achieving his agenda. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.