In yet another example of how the president is attempting to work around a gridlocked Congress, President Barack Obama unveiled an initiative Monday to spur technology hiring throughout the country. And the nation's city leaders were all ears.
"[Obama] has taken that mantle on this year, and last year, and said, 'I’m going to do whatever I can to act on things that are important.' And he’s assumed stronger executive authority that way," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, president of the National League of Cities. "But I think those of us in cities get that, because we can’t sit around and wait, and just talk about things when people’s expectations are that we get things done.” The NLC's 50th annual Congressional City Conference brought more than 2,000 city leaders and delegates to the District of Columbia to lobby Congress for their legislative priorities . Obama's Monday speech was the first time he has addressed the conference, and the first time a president has spoken there in 20 years.
For Becker and NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony, Obama's presence reaffirmed that cities are influential players in economic development. Anthony said he believed the president's initiative, known as "TechHire," struck a chord among the city leaders gathered at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Northwest Washington.
“I think the TechHire initiative is going to resonate with our city leaders and the business community," Anthony said. "And that’s what the president was talking about: connecting local government with the business, with those young people who we need to keep in our communities."
Obama used much of his 20-minute speech to lay out the new initiative, which includes partnerships between governments and employers to recruit applicants to open positions; a commitment by private sector leaders to offer new training for technology jobs, and a $100 million grant competition to support new ideas for training technology skills. The grants will be funded by company fees paid to hire foreign workers under the H-1B visa program.
But the president stressed that the city leaders will be the key to making sure TechHire succeeds, and meet the demand for technology jobs that remain unfilled.
"Ultimately, success is going to rest on folks like you," Obama said. "On mayors, council members and local leaders because you’ve got the power to bring your communities together and seize this incredible economic development opportunity.”
The TechHire initiative is one example of where the administration is working with local leaders to advance its goals in the face of a gridlocked Congress. At the beginning of his speech, Obama noted they have partnered on expanding paid sick leave, combating veteran homelessness, and coordinating "My Brother's Keeper" efforts to bolster young men of color.
"We’ve worked with many of you to lift the minimum wage while we’re waiting on Congress to do something,” Obama said.
Though Becker stressed that many city leaders must choose pragmatism over partisanship, the crowd clearly supported the president. When Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris asked the leaders earlier in the morning whether they were satisfied or disappointed with Republican gains in the 2014 midterm elections, a vast majority said they were disappointed. (The crowd's support for Obama also shone through when hecklers scolded Harris twice for referring to the president as "Obama" instead of "President Obama.")
Despite any political leaning, Becker said the strong partnership between cities and the Obama administration was a reflection of a shared commitment to results. The Salt Lake City mayor, a Democrat though his office is nonpartisan, pointed to TechHire's emphasis on linking local governments with the business community.
"Even at times we don’t completely agree, I walk arm and arm with my Chamber of Commerce ... and I think you find that true around communities across this country," Becker said. "And we don’t see that happening in the paralysis that’s happened in Congress. So we appreciate it when the president and his administration reaches out and says, 'Here’s some things within our realm we can do to be a partner with you.'”
Becker did acknowledge that local governments rely on Congress to address issues only the federal legislature can address, such as long-term transportation funding and a proposal to implement an online sales tax , both of which are top legislative priorities for the NLC.
"For us, it’s frustrating when we see Congress not acting on things even when there’s consensus," Becker said. "I think you’d find this across the board with local government officials: There’s this huge need for us to do what we can to provide enough push that Congress will get some things done."
"And we have the same constituents and we get politics," he continued. "We get that sometimes there are hard decisions to be made, but we also know our community will support us when they recognize there’s a need to get something done.”
For the president, getting things done in his final two years in office means partnering with the cities, especially when faced with opposition from a GOP Congress. At the end of his speech, Obama laid out his broader goals of expanding economic opportunities, raising wages, making college affordable, increasing access to health care and ensuring safe communities.
"That’s what I’m committed to doing the last two years," Obama said, "and I’m going to need the cities to help me do it.”
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