While much of last night's State of the Union Address focused on big-picture issues, President Obama did make some specific employment-related comments during the annual speech to the country. One underlying purpose of this year's SOTU is to lay the groundwork for the next Administration to carry on the President’s legacy and pursue his policy initiatives. To that end, the speech touched upon a number of job-related issues, including healthcare, paid leave, and portable benefits.
The President began his speech by acknowledging that in this election year, "expectations are low" for legislative achievements. However, he said that as long as he remains in office, he will "keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing," including "equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done."
The first of the SOTU's questions focused on how to "give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?" While the President did not delve into legislative or regulatory solutions, he did make a comment that appeared to garner approval from both sides of the aisle: "I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there's red tape that needs to be cut." This Administration has been criticized by many in the employer community for extensive rulemaking and sub-regulatory guidance that have adversely impacted regular business operations.
Following the resulting applause, the President clarified that working families would not benefit by such thriving private industry if "attacks on collective bargaining [go] unanswered." Other than this passing statement, however, the President did not expound upon the virtues of unionization or "worker voice" - frequent talking points in other speeches.
Regarding healthcare and retirement benefits, the President did not spend too much time on this issue, other than advocating additional benefits and protections "that provide a basic measure of security," and ensuring that "basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today."
So what can we glean from President Obama's final SOTU, at least in the labor and employment context? Early in the hour-long speech, the President emphasized that he did not want to just talk about the year ahead, but instead wanted to focus on "the next five years, ten years, and beyond." By reaffirming his commitment to issues such as paid leave and raising the minimum wage, the President was helping build the campaign platform for the next Democratic candidate.
Moreover, despite the President's taking issue with "outdated" regulations and red tape, as the end of his term nears, federal agencies charged with carrying out his agenda are expected to finalize a number of rules before the November elections, including rules to implement the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order, the so-called "persuader" rule, and OSHA's crystalline silica standard, among others.
Regardless of who takes office in 2017, it is anticipated the current Administration will do everything in its power to preserve the "middle class economics" theme the President has been building over the past seven years.