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Policy: Labor

Dems' progressive push: Banner year or pipe dream?

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Labor,PennAve,Economy,Bill de Blasio

Talk of a resurgent brand of progressive politics has hit a fever pitch and some in the Democratic base are pressing President Obama to follow the lead of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

After being sworn in by former President Bill Clinton -- with possible 2016 frontrunner Hillary Clinton watching -- de Blasio launched a national conversation about how Democrats should proceed ahead of the midterm elections.

The new mayor campaigned on a pledge to address income inequality, vowing to construct more affordable housing and fund Pre-K school programs with higher taxes on the wealthy.

With the White House and Democratic lawmakers on the defensive over the botched rollout of Obamacare, liberal loyalists are calling for a more aggressive message and policies that would move the party further left in the name of fighting societal ills.

Some Democrats say taking de Blasio’s message nationally would be an effective political tool. They say the party would appear more in tune with the plight of the working poor, while tapping into public frustration over soaring compensation for the wealthiest Americans.

Obama, who endorsed de Blasio during the campaign, has already called addressing income inequality the primary focus of his second term.

“The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income — it now takes half,” Obama said in a recent speech. "Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more.”

Some Democrats, though, are warning the party faithful not to read too much into de Blasio’s ascension to the national stage, saying New York City is no barometer for the nation’s capital.

“If you look at history, you come back with an answer that is defiantly ‘no,’” New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said when asked if politics in the Big Apple would have a carryover effect on policies in Washington.

However, the newfound progressive confidence could alter the debate in at least one significant way, he acknowledged.

“It impacts the White House thinking because it empowers the White House,” Sheinkopf added. “No one has really defined what progressivism is. Now it’s going to be the progressives' turn to take rhetoric and turn it into action.”

Despite the increasingly bullish attitude among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, however, their liberal wish list faces sizable obstacles in 2014.

The first key for progressives is securing an increase in the minimum wage. Obama raised the issue during his last State of the Union address, but the proposal went nowhere in 2013. Democrats, however, say a minimum-wage hike is among their primary goals in the new year.

Obama initially called for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9, but recently endorsed a Democratic bill that would increase the rate to $10.10 an hour.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 63 percent of Americans favored raising the minimum wage to $10.10, including nearly half of all Republicans.

GOP lawmakers though have been reluctant to sign on to such legislation. Conservative critics said the proposal made for good politics but bad policy.

“We don’t have as much of an inequality problem as a poverty problem,” said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation. “What they confuse is the moral worth of a human and the economic value of that person’s labor. It’s a completely ineffective tool to fight poverty.”

Sherk pointed to Obamacare’s employer mandate, which was delayed until 2015 but will require larger employers to provide health insurance for workers or pay a penalty, arguing that the provision already amounted to a minimum-wage increase.

Republicans contend that the White House and congressional Democrats should be less concerned with the income gap and more focused on promoting economic growth, arguing that job creation, not income redistribution, is the best way to combat poverty.

Conservatives say the problem-plagued Obamacare rollout has elevated the public's distrust of big-government fixes for sweeping issues.

Other policy prescriptions backed by progressives also face an uncertain future.

The centerpiece of de Blasio’s agenda is a plan to raise taxes on the rich to pay for early-childhood education initiatives.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama called for universal preschool — but the proposal quickly disappeared on Capitol Hill.

Republicans have also balked at the idea of tax increases, pushing instead for Democratic commitments to slash spending on entitlement programs.

That political reality leaves progressives facing an uphill battle in the next few months.

“It’s very hard to see much of anything coming out of Congress, except perhaps the minimum wage,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

But Baker said the new tone would play a role in the election year.

“[The White House and Democratic lawmakers] are obviously responding to political pressure,” he added. “The fact that you see more of a left-leaning sentiment opens a lot of running room for progressive Democrats.”

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