President Obama's State of the Union Address was typical of the genre -- a hodgepodge of items on his administration's wish list that are unlikely to generate much interest among the public and even less in Congress. It was an opportunity for politicians to bask in the limelight.
Mercifully, the president did not dwell on income disparity which threatens to become a fountain of political demagoguery in the months ahead. However, he did demand an increase in the minimum wage coupled with a threat to unilaterally raise it on federal projects via Executive Order. This is one of the issues politicians pursue when they are out of ideas. Less than 3 percent of workers earn the minimum wage and most of those are middle class kids in their first jobs. Raising the minimum wage may be a good idea but it will not help struggling families or boost the economy in any meaningful way.
Rather than taunt the Republicans with his threat to raise the minimum wage on federal projects, Obama should have focused on growth policies that all could support. He missed a clear opportunity to reach out to the opposition by endorsing the Keystone Pipeline.
To be fair, the president did advocate some measures that would stimulate economic growth. He continues to champion more investment in advanced manufacturing technologies which reflects a keen understanding of the root cause of our economic malaise. The loss of millions of low skill manufacturing jobs that once offered people with minimal qualifications relatively easy access to the middle class had a devastating impact on our society from which we have yet to recover.
But just as the travails of manufacturing brought us down, the potential of manufacturing revival can bring us back up. Today as always we are leading the world in new technologies and the factory floor is where most innovation takes place. Two thirds of our R&D and 90 percent of patents are in manufacturing. We have a great potential to employ more people in well-paying manufacturing jobs.
However, jobs in modern manufacturing require advanced education and training that most of the displaced manufacturing workers simply do not have. The president touched on this last night. We need a coherent program for training people of all ages for jobs that actually exist and offer potential for personal growth. The business community, especially manufacturers, would eagerly join forces with government in support of such an initiative if it were truly bi-partisan, professionally led and based upon practical incentives. We wish Vice President Biden well in his assignment to help close the skills gap.
The president also reiterated his commitment to free trade and immigration reform, both of which can help rouse our economy from its lethargy. A free trade agreement with our partners in the Pacific region will foster abundant opportunities for U.S. exports, and resolving the status of immigrants will likewise encourage investment and growth. Congress should embrace the positive growth elements of the president's address because our nation needs more positive action, not more partisan bickering.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. January 2014