President Obama chastised congressional Republicans and defended the executive branch in a speech before a packed crowd Wednesday morning at the Uptown Theater.
As the U.S. House prepared to vote to sue Obama for excessive use of executive orders, the president defended the practice as a necessary antidote to gridlock in Congress.
Executive orders are presidential policy directives that don’t require congressional approval but carry the force of law.
“That’s when we act – when Congress won’t,” Obama said.
“You folks are doing your jobs,” Obama told the crowd of about 1,500. “Imagine how much better we’d be doing if Congress did its job, too.”
The House approved filing the lawsuit by a vote of 225-201 later in the day.
Obama spoke not long after the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported the gross domestic product increased by 4 percent from April through June, a sign the economy is getting stronger.
“We hold the best cards. Things are getting better,” Obama said about the nation’s place in the global economy.
Obama said that GDP growth and increases in corporate profits were not the true tests of a healthy economy. The bar is whether workers see an increase in wages, he said.
“That’s the measure of whether the economy is working. ... Is it doing well for ordinary folks who are working hard every day?” he said.
Obama called again for Congress to raise the minimum wage. He contended that states that have done so on their own have seen more job growth than states that haven’t.
“If folks have more money in their pocket, then businesses have more customers. If businesses have more customers, they hire more workers,” Obama said to applause. “You start moving in the right direction. But it starts not from the top down. It starts from the bottom up.”
U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, questioned the president’s logic, pointing to a February report from the Congressional Budget Office that estimated an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would reduce the workforce by about 500,000 workers.
“It would hurt young and low-income Americans the most by destroying the very jobs that give them a start in the American workforce,” Pompeo said in an e-mail.
That report also estimates that a minimum-wage increase would boost the average family’s income by 3 percent and lift 900,000 people above the poverty threshold.
The president touted an executive order to allow people to repay student loans at an income-based rate.
“I don’t want our young people just saddled with debt before they’ve even gotten started,” he said.
Obama also called for investment in infrastructure and clean energy as ways to ensure that the U.S. economy continues to grow. He called for Congress to close tax loopholes on corporations that shift business overseas and to offer tax breaks to companies that move jobs here.
Urged to vote
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said the speech was just the latest example of the president proposing “big-government ideas as a solution for all things.”
Obama is not on the ballot this year, but the speech had the tone of an election-year call to arms for Democrats to get out the vote in a year that many analysts project Republicans could take the U.S. Senate.
The crowd booed when the president mentioned the lawsuit from congressional Republicans, which he noted would be paid for with taxpayers’ money.
“Don’t boo. Vote,” Obama said.
“They’re counting on you getting cynical so you don’t vote, don’t get involved,” Obama said. “You can’t afford to be cynical.
“Cynicism did not put a man on the moon. Cynicism did not give women the right to vote,” he said.
Pompeo did not participate in the House vote on Wednesday but said in an e-mail that he fully supports the lawsuit, which he said “addresses President Obama’s lawlessness.”
“We need to restore constitutional order and hold the President accountable,” Pompeo wrote.
Former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Pompeo’s predecessor and opponent in the Aug. 5 Republican primary, also criticized the president’s use of executive orders but said that House Republicans missed an opportunity to hold the president accountable when they funded the orders that they now want to sue over.
“Had I been in Congress, I would have pushed for withholding funding for the same executive orders Speaker (John) Boehner is naming in the suit,” Tiahrt said in an e-mail. “I would imagine the court will have to consider that if it was such a big deal to the Republicans, then they wouldn’t have funded the executive orders. That is one of the tools that the Constitution gives the House, but the House isn’t doing its job.”
Obama’s speech resonated with Diana Newman, a retiree who lives in Kansas City.
“All I’ve got to say is I love my president,” Newman said right after Obama finished his speech. “Right on!”
Josh Orr, a Kansas City resident who runs an online bookstore, was also moved by the president’s remarks, particularly his mention of the Affordable Care Act.
“The Affordable Care Act has been big, because my wife is a Type 1 diabetic and she’s able to get insurance for the first time ever,” Orr said.
Outside the theater, a small group of protesters rallied for a number of issues. John Brown, an auto mechanic from Kansas City who was waving an American flag, said Obama’s use of executive orders was unconstitutional.
“He taught the Constitution, didn’t he?” Brown said. “He doesn’t know it very well.”
Executive orders are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but every president has used the practice since George Washington, though it was not formalized until the early 20th century.
One of the most famous executive orders was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who grew up in Kansas, to peacefully integrate public schools in Little Rock in 1957.