Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked a good deal about being part of a national effort on behalf of the nation’s cities to get the federal government to recommit to creating affordable housing and upgrading American infrastructure. Just last week he said President Obama “has long been a champion of our cities.” But if Obama did seem to ride—albeit in the shallow waters—the progressive wave that de Blasio’s victory augured, his focus was on popular, big-ticket issues like the minimum wage, healthcare and unemployment insurance.
The proposed hike in the minimum wage is a big deal: for one thing, it would moot the debate over the last four years in New York about whether to impose a “living wage” on firms that build or locate in taxpayer-subsidized developments.
Mayor Bloomberg fought the concept tooth and nail, and the City Council last year passed a version of the idea that was drenched rather than merely watered down. De Blasio has said he’ll expand the law, which mandated wages of $10 an hour, with benefits, or $11 an hour without. Should the federal minimum wage increase to $10.10, it’d significantly close the gap between the state’s current minimum of $8 and the city living wage proposals. (Of course, full-time work at $10.10 an hour gets you just over $21,000 a year—enough to stay above poverty for families of three or fewer, but only enough to afford about $525 in monthly rent, since rent is supposed to be about 30 percent of what you make.)
Obama talked inequality, à la de Blasio, and he called for tax reform to (besides lowering the tax rate for corporations) generate savings for “rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes.”
He also repeated his call for Congress to “help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old.” And he wants to enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit, which narrows the after-tax inequality gap between top earners and those at the bottom.
Finally, the president said he’d “keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook,” although he didn’t say exactly when or what kind of gun control he might support.
But where Obama offered specific policies, they were either familiar (like the minimum wage) or modest (setting up another six federally supported high-tech manufacturing hubs). Obama is sticking to known crowd-pleasers to boost Democrats in the November midterms.
Last week, de Blasio suggested that the nation’s mayors ought to target local members of Congress and the Senate who haven’t voted in cities’ best interests on stuff like funding public housing—which one veteran political insider, speaking just before de Blasio’s inauguration, called “a time bomb” for the new mayor.
Obama mentioned housing twice in last night’s speech—once in reference to a bill on homeownership, and one in boasting that the housing market is rebounding. Maybe next year.
Read Next: John Nichols explains why the State of the Union was right on wages but wrong on trade.