By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 29, 2014
President Barack Obama delivered his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, highlighting mostly domestic policy items such as job creation and student loan debt. He also announced an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors.
In his speech, one particular area of importance for students is the process of informing college students and their families about higher education, such as student loans.
“I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt,” Obama said.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the speech, Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) said each topic Obama mentioned — from the war in Afghanistan to immigration reform — was pertinent to twenty-somethings and college students.
“It’s their country,” Dingell said. “Everything is of importance to them.”
On the topic of student loans, Dingell agreed with Obama’s statements, adding that it was necessary to provide financial assistance to college students.
“That’s one of the biggest problems when I talk to the people I see and serve,” Dingell said of paying off student loan debt.
Public policy senior Adam Watkins, vice president of the College Democrats echoed the need to for legislators to consider college students’ finances at the organization’s watch party at the Ford School of Public Policy.
“A key component for college students is our purchasing power and being able to afford institutions like this one,” he said.
LSA sophomore Derek Magill, president of Young Americans for Liberty, opposed government interference in higher education, particularly in providing student loans. He said loans push tuition increases.
“If you make their cost affordable, if you continually give people money so that they can pay a certain price, colleges can raise their prices,” Magill said.
Obama reiterated many issues explored in his previous addresses, representing overarching policy objectives from his term that he has not completed yet.
Michael Heaney, assistant professor of organizational studies, said it is common for second-term presidents to address issues that may only be favored by one party.
“Especially in the president’s second term, especially in a country that’s highly divided, especially when the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, it’s very difficult for the president under those circumstances to get cooperation from Congress,” Heaney said. “Under these types of conditions, presidents usually look more toward things they can do unilaterally.”
Obama called for action on income in equality, announcing an executive order that will set the minimum wage for workers under new federal contracts at $10.10, a $2.85 increase from the current rate of $7.25. According to an Obama administration fact sheet, the executive order will cover workers who are performing services or constructing buildings.
Luke Shaefer, assistant professor of social work, said this minimum wage bump would affect a small group of new federal employees. However, it has the potential to have a far-reaching effect.
“Even if the president’s minimum wage increase for federal contractors is on the whole more of a symbolic gesture rather than one with concrete policy effect, it is possible that it will cause a chain reaction to increase activity across states,” Shaefer said.
In Michigan, this change is already underway — a coalition of organizations called Raise Michigan announced a push Monday to create a ballot question in November addressing an increase in the minimum wage.
Dingell said raising the minimum wage was necessary to foster economic growth.
At the College Democrats’ watch party, members of the student organization said minimum wage discussion was the most pertinent element of the speech. LSA junior Mary Bridget Lee, communications director of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, said a rising minimum wage will benefit college students.
“The majority of college students work at least part-time jobs to support themselves,” she said. “With current costs of attending an institute of higher learning, raising the minimum wage is going to really make college more accessible.”
LSA freshman Benjamin Meisel, freshman chair of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, said Obama’s support of a higher minimum wage would inhibit growth in small business.
“We should be encouraging growth, not stifling it,” Meisel wrote in an e-mail.
Obama also announced the creation of six more private-public research partnerships in 2014. He added that connecting businesses and research universities and creating research hubs are key to securing high-tech manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
The aspiration aligns with that of the University’s Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, a $100 million government-industry partnership. Similar to tech hubs that Obama pointed out, the Center aims to mark Ann Arbor as “the first American city with a fleet of networked, driverless vehicles.”
Another facet of the president’s approach to Congress came in his stance on climate change. Andrew Hoffman, professor of natural resources and environment, said there has been a shift in the president’s rhetoric when discussing environmental issues.
“He’s going to get things done through legislative action or through other means, but he’s going to follow his agenda with or without Congress,” Hoffman said.
The president touched on foreign policy at the conclusion of his address, emphasizing that the United States will remain invested in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite all American troops being withdrawn from the region.
“The fact is, that danger remains,” Obama said. “While we have put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.”
—Daily Staff Reporters Michael Sugerman and Jack Turman, and Daily News Editors Ian Dillingham and Rachel Premack contributed to this report
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from public policy senior Adam Watkins, vice president of the College Democrats.