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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — President Barack Obama has said his call for a higher minimum wage is good policy and good politics in this midterm election year, and he’s putting that theory to work for a Michigan Senate candidate who is the rare Democrat to appear with the embattled president.
Obama arrived for a three-hour visit to this Midwest battleground state and walked down the steps of Air Force One side-by-side with Rep. Gary Peters, the first Senate candidate to embrace the chance to appear with the president before voters this year. Some other Democrats have shied away from Obama amid controversy over his health care plan, but Peters flew along with Obama and plans to appear with him at a minimum wage event at the University of Michigan.
Michigan voted for Obama in both his presidential campaigns and his bailout of the auto industry has been popular here. Michigan also has an effort to put a measure on the November ballot to increase the state minimum wage, an initiative that polling shows is popular among voters who have been hit hard by the economic downturn in recent years.
On their way to the university campus, Obama and Peters stopped at Zingerman’s Deli , an Ann Arbor landmark, where they ordered Reuben sandwiches and were served by a University of Michigan graduate who makes $9 an hour, a rate above the current federal minimum wage.
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling on Air Force One that the issue has particular resonance among college students like those the president was appearing before. Earnest noted Peters has been a “very strong advocate” in Congress to raise the minimum wage.
Peters could benefit from the publicity that a presidential visit brings, since he has not been elected statewide and polls show many voters are unfamiliar with him.
“Gary is concerned that too many Michigan middle-class families and those aspiring to get there are struggling right now, so he is glad to see President Obama take on such an important issue like raising the minimum wage because it will make a difference to Michiganders,” said Peters campaign spokeswoman Haley Morris.
Still, appearing with Obama is not without risk, even in a Democratic-leaning state like Michigan. An EPIC/MRA poll of voters in the state taken in February showed 61 percent of respondents have a negative view of Obama’s job performance, verses 37 percent positive. The same poll found Peters at 38 percent in a dead heat against Republican opponent former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land at 41 percent, within the poll’s margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Obama wants to increase the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 as part of an election-year economic agenda focused on working families. The White House says that would benefit more than 970,000 workers in Michigan.
“This is not just good policy,” Obama told Democratic governors at a White House meeting in February. “It also happens to be good politics, because the truth of the matter is the overwhelming majority of Americans think that raising the minimum wage is a good idea. That is true for independents, that is true for Democrats, and it’s true for Republicans.”
The Senate could vote on a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 as early as next week. The Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, said Wednesday that if Republicans block Democrats’ efforts he would be open to negotiating a compromise.
In Michigan, proponents of a higher minimum wage are working to collect enough signatures for a ballot initiative to raise the state’s rate from $7.40 to $10.10 an hour. The EPIC/MRA poll found 60 percent support for the ballot measure, verses 36 percent against.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, who supports a higher minimum wage and is challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, also plans to meet with Obama before the event, his campaign spokesman said.
In a preview of the president’s appearance at the university’s intramural sports building, the White House invoked the legacy of carmaker Henry Ford, who manufactured the Model T not far from where Obama will be speaking. The White House said Ford helped create a thriving American middle class by raising his workers’ wages.
Obama also plans to travel to his hometown of Chicago for two evening fundraisers benefiting the Democratic National Committee. The first is a private roundtable discussion being attended by about 25 supporters who contributed up to $32,400. The second, at the Lincoln Park home of Obama donors Grace Tsao-Wu and Craig Freedman, is a dinner reception with about 55 supporters contributing up to $10,000.