President Barack Obama kept it simple.
“It's common sense. It's just common sense. That's all it is. That's all I'm saying,” he kept repeating as supporters at Central Connecticut State University cheered his plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, part of a major policy push by his administration and Democrats in Congress.
He appealed to Americans' sense of fairness to help lift people out of poverty, while he also addressed the immediate concerns of the large college audience jammed into the gymnasium at Kaiser Hall.
Obama stressed everyday needs, such as feeding a family and paying bills. (See photos of the Obama visit.)
Over the past year since Congress has failed to act on a minimum wage raise, Obama said that was the equivalent of a $200 pay cut for the average minimum wage worker because it didn't keep pace with inflation.
“That's a month of groceries for the average minimum wage worker. That's two months for their electricity. This is not a small thing. This is a big deal. It makes a big difference in the lives of a lot of families,” Obama said to more cheering.
It was a celebrity mood at the university, more of a pep rally in contrast to the sombre tone at the University of Hartford last year when Obama came to encourage gun control legislation — an initiative led by Connecticut after the murders of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
Obama was joined on the stage by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, with students standing behind him. General Assembly leaders and several U.S. House members, including Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, Elizabeth Esty, D-5, and John Larson, D-1, a graduate of CCSU, sat in front, along with other dignitaries.
The federal boost would move the wage from $7.25, where it has been since 2007, to $10.10. In Connecticut, it is $8.70 and was on its way to $9 next year until Malloy revised the plan to match the $10.10 in three years.
Obama said some critics of the raise say it only helps young people.
“As if that is a bad thing. I think we should want to help young people. I'd like to see them try to put themselves through college on a low-wage work-study job,” he said, which brought more cheers.
The president pointed out, however, that the average person who depends on a minimum wage job is 35, with a majority of those jobs held by women.
“These Americans are working full time, often supporting families, and if the minimum wage had kept pace with our economy's productivity, they'd already be earning over $10 an hour,” he said.
Because of inaction in Washington, people fall further behind, he said.
“Right now it (the minimum wage) is worth 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan took office,” he said.
The president made an unannounced stop first at Cafe Beauregard in downtown New Britain, where he had lunch with the four governors and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. The restaurant pays its workers above the minimum wage.
The visit shocked the crowd on Main Street, including some in the chairs at a nearby barbershop, according to a pool report on Obama's stop.
Gervais Barger of Plainville was seated at the Courtside Cuts Barber Shop on Main Street when he heard a commotion outside at lunchtime.
“They started seeing the motorcade, and we came outside,” Barger said as he stood outside — still wearing a smock and without a coat on a cold day.
He said he had never seen a president before — “not in person.”
Obama had high praise for the Connecticut delegation and for the New England governors.
He said he usually appears at events with only one governor, but this visit was special. He said he could call them the “New England Patriots, but that name has already been taken,” referring to the football team.
He dubbed them “the justice league of governors” for raising the rates in their own states above the minimum.
Malloy, at the recent National Governor's Association, defended Obama from criticism by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, something that likely contributed to Obama's choice to head to Connecticut to focus the country's attention on the minimum wage.
Jindal said Obama “seems to be waving the white flag of surrender” on the economy, given his emphasis on the minimum wage.
“I don't know what the heck was a reference to a white flag, when it comes to people making $404 a week,” Malloy said at the time. “I mean that's the most insane statement I've ever heard.” The video went viral.
Obama's visit came one day after the Quinnipiac Poll said 71 percent of Connecticut's registered voters support raising the minimum wage in Connecticut.
A student shouted out during Obama's speech, “I love you, Mr. President!”
“I love back,” a relaxed Obama responded. “But we can't spend the whole day talking about how we love each other.”
“We are here today because each of us cares deeply about opportunities for all Americans,” he said.
The president said the economy has been growing, businesses have expanded and unemployment keeps dropping. But while people at the top continue to prosper, average incomes haven't gone up, he said.
“Too many Americans are working harder than ever just to keep up,” Obama said. “We have to reverse that trend.”
Obama talked about giving people a chance to succeed. He said both Shumlin and Malloy have dyslexia and Patrick was raised in a home of modest means. He said they succeeded because of the love of family and people helping them.
“So many of us understand that ... the central premise of this country is the chance to achieve your dreams if you work hard, if you take responsibility. It doesn't matter where you start. It's where you finish,” he said, which brought sustained applause.
Obama said in America success shouldn't be determined by “the circumstances of our birth.” He said what matters “is the strength of your work ethic and the power of your dreams.”
Obama said raising the minimum wage matches the country's “ideals with the reality that is happening on the ground right now.”
He said his agenda of opportunity involves jobs for those seniors graduating from CCSU this year, training Americans for the jobs of the future and guaranteeing access to a “world-class education.”
“It's time for $10.10. It's time to give America a raise,” Obama said as he ended his 25-minute address and headed to a Democratic Party function in Boston.
Obama's visit to CCSU was special for New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart. Not only is it the Republican mayor's hometown, but CCSU is her alma mater. She was excited, even if she doesn't see eye-to-eye with Obama on a minimum wage increase.
“The beauty of politics is that you can agree to disagree. In terms of raising the minimum wage, it's a quick fix, but it's a long-term problem of people living in poverty. I see that every day. ... But will raising the minimum wage really help them or will it help them if we were able to get businesses and manufacturers to pay stable wages, with insurance and benefits? That's the question.”
Opponents point to the Congressional Budget Office report that said 500,000 jobs could be lost by mid-2016 if the rate were raised. The report also says the wage boost would take 900,000 families out of poverty and 16.5 million workers would get a raise.
State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said Connecticut's proposal to raise the minimum wage was reinforced by Obama's speech.
He said it gives low-income families more buying power. Looney said businesses who pay low wages are in effect being subsidized by the government when their workers have to depend on public programs to get by.
There are between 70,000 and 90,000 workers in Connecticut earning the minimum wage out of 1.7 million workers.
It's not clear if he saw them, but there were a few dozen protesters on the campus, some of whom asked that Obama not approve the XL Keystone Pipeline, which they said could be an environmental disaster.
Three men from Greater New Haven also held up signs petitioning for more jobs.
“Where are the jobs you promised us? Lower taxes and manufacturing jobs will stay in the state. We want to work. We don't want a handout,” said Dan Buzzell of Cheshire.
Unemployed for more than two months, he said the lull in the construction industry is the “worst I have seen in eight years.
He was joined by John Ulatowski and Mike Carlson, both of West Haven.