WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. — President Obama began a two-day, four-state campaign-style swing on Wednesday aimed at promoting an “opportunity agenda” that he said would create jobs, raise incomes, retrain workers, and improve education.
At a steel plant in West Mifflin, outside Pittsburgh, and at a Costco warehouse in suburban Maryland outside Washington, Obama declared that he would move forward on his priorities even if lawmakers continued to block many of his top initiatives.
“I’m hoping Congress goes along with this, but I’m not going to wait,” he told a crowd of steelworkers here as he described his ideas for enhancing retirement security, echoing a refrain from his State of the Union message on Tuesday night. Summing up the litany of small-bore initiatives he plans to enact using his executive authority, he said, “These are real, practical, achievable solutions to help shift the odds back a bit in favor of working Americans.”
The tour, which was to continue Thursday in Milwaukee and Nashville, is meant to build momentum for a president who has struggled to advance major policies and has lost some support in the polls since his reelection. Aides said he wanted to escape the restrictions of being a virtual prime minister, absorbed by what Congress is doing, and demonstrate a broader leadership less dependent on the legislative process.
“The president is not president of Washington,” said Jay Carney, White House press secretary. “He’s president of America, and there’s a lot of activity happening around America.” But he added that Obama was not giving up on Congress to focus on his executive power. “He’s doing both,” Carney said.
At his Pennsylvania stop, Obama signed an executive memorandum and handed it to Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, telling him to create a new “starter” retirement savings program called MyRa. The program is meant for lower-wage workers who typically do not put money aside for retirement.
The new program will allow workers to start a fund with as little as $25 and contribute as little as $5 per pay period. The contributions would come after taxes, but the income built over time would not be taxed until retirement, and there would be a guaranteed return with no risk of losing the investment. After accumulating $15,000, the fund would be converted into a regular Roth IRA.
Lew said the idea was to provide an opportunity for people who otherwise would not save.
“We think this fills a space that, very importantly, we can do by our own authority,” he told reporters on Air Force One as the president flew to Pennsylvania on Wednesday. “When people start saving, they get into the habit of saving.”
At his earlier stop in Maryland, Obama focused on his support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, something Congress has resisted amid criticism that it could hurt businesses in a still-fragile economy. During his national address Tuesday, he said he would raise the wage floor for future federal contract workers on his own authority.