Obama wields quiet persuasion in states to expand family leave

Few state legislators anywhere in the United States have the ace up their sleeves that Maryland's Ca
Todd Bedrick, an Ernst & Young manager who took six weeks of paternity leave, at home with his daughter in Portland, Ore., Nov. 3, 2014.
Todd Bedrick, an Ernst & Young manager who took six weeks of paternity leave, at home with his daughter in Portland, Ore., Nov. 3, 2014.

Few state legislators anywhere in the United States have the ace up their sleeves that Maryland’s Catherine Pugh holds: President Barack Obama, and the power of the White House.

She’s written legislation to require Maryland employers to provide workers paid family leave. The issue is a high priority for Obama, and instead of a futile push in the Republican-controlled Congress, his administration has put muscle behind Pugh’s legislation. The White House offered technical assistance with the bill and made clear to her that a presidential phone call to recalcitrant state lawmakers is possible, she said.

“It’s energizing, energizing to know your president is concerned about it, that it’s coming from the top,” Pugh, a Democrat from Baltimore, said in an interview.

Other presidents have at times turned to state and local governments to achieve their policy objectives, but Obama’s broad use of such soft power to bypass Congress is “unusual,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

While the president has used his executive authority to make high-profile changes in U.S. policy, such as by sparing millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and placing millions of acres of federal land out of the reach of developers, his efforts to influence state and local policy on behalf of American workers have received relatively little attention.

“It’s always good for the commander in chief to say, ‘I’m not retreating, I’m attacking in a new direction,'” said William Galston, President Bill Clinton’s former chief domestic policy adviser and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The campaign to expand workers’ access to paid family leave is one example of how Obama is looking beyond the limits of his official authority to place his stamp on the U.S. After failing to convince Congress to raise the minimum wage early in his second term, Obama encouraged states to do it, and 18 of them did. He faces similar congressional resistance on issues as varied as paid family and sick leave, gun control, climate change and free pre-school and community college. States and cities run by Democrats offer a more sympathetic audience.

There are drawbacks. Encouraging states to act yields piecemeal policy, when it works. On many issues — gun control, for example — the administration can only hope for a handful of incremental local victories that may provide momentum for national changes after Obama leaves office, if at all. And rather than issuing an executive action or passing a law, with immediate national effect, success depends on deft presidential persuasion.

“It’s not a sign of a powerful president but just the opposite,” Zelizer said. “It’s just another sign of how difficult Capitol Hill has become, certainly for a liberal president.

The administration senses a ripe moment for the cause of expanding access to paid family leave.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, one of the world’s most prominent chief executives, announced in November he would take two months paternity leave for the birth of his daughter, Max. Companies including Credit Suisse Group, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Spotify, Microsoft, Amazon.com, Johnson & Johnson and Netflix have recently added or expanded paid family leave policies.

Almost every corporate executive stepping into the White House is cornered on the subject, no matter what issue they come to discuss.

“This is top of the mind,” Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, said in an interview. “I can’t think of too many employers who have come through here where we haven’t discussed this as a priority.”

The issue may be a potential lever in the 2016 elections and beyond. Paid family leave polls especially well with the so-called Millenial generation, non-college educated women, unmarried women and working women, said Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic strategist and former pollster for President Bill Clinton.

Obama first proposed paid family leave at least as far back as 2005, and often speaks publicly about the financial strains he and his wife faced as a couple with young children.

White House employees receive up to 12 weeks paid leave. High-profile White House staff members, including Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, have taken extended leaves for newborn children.

The issue went on the back burner in Obama’s first term as he focused on pulling the economy out of recession; the president and his advisers were reluctant at the time to impose new mandates on employers, an administration official said. The person requested anonymity because the discussions were private. Obama revisited the issue in his second term after the economy stabilized, the official said.

Only 12 percent of U.S. private-sector employees have access to any paid leave to care for a newborn child or a sick relative, according to a March 2015 U.S. Labor Department survey. Among the least well paid 25 percent of workers — those earning less than $24,000 per year or $11.64 an hour — just 5 percent receive the benefit.

The White House sees opportunities to win paid family leave laws this year in Connecticut,New York, and Maryland. Legislation for paid sick leave requirements in Vermont is awaiting a signature by the governor. The administration is also discussing expanded employee leave or sick leave with state legislators in Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Alaska, among other places, said two officials, who asked for anonymity.

Since Obama called for action on paid family leave in his 2014 State of the Union speech, 20 cities or counties have taken action including Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, in most cases granting the benefit to municipal employees, according to the White House. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island currently have laws requiring paid family leave, all passed before 2014 and financed through state-administered insurance programs.

At the White House, a working group meets every two weeks to develop strategies to build momentum for family leave. A presidential “Summit on Working Families” highlighted the issue last year. Top officials including Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Jarrett have conducted a “Lead on Leave” tour of the country.

The president’s economic team has issued reports arguing that businesses can profit from paid leave through improved employee retention, and last year the president devoted an entire chapter of his annual economic report to the topic. In Atlanta, those reports helped supporters make the case that paid family leave would enhance worker productivity, the city’s Human Resources Commissioner, Yvonne Cowser Yancy, said in an interview.

Yancy said she distilled the reports and other research supplied by the White House into talking points for City Council members, who voted to offer paid family leave to city employees last year.

In Connecticut last year, Perez participated in a public round-table event to rally support for a paid family leave bill, garnering prominent coverage in local media. When the bill stalled before the conclusion of the legislative session in June, Perez called the governor and leaders of both the state House and Senate to secure funding in the state budget for a feasibility study, said Matt Lesser, a Democratic state representative who sponsored the legislation.

That’s built momentum for the issue this year, Lesser said. No longer is paid leave “a pie-in-the-sky liberal wish list” item, he said; instead, the state’s leaders are “getting down to the nuts and bolts of how do we get it done.”

“It was an incredible thing to have the full support of the administration on an issue in Connecticut,” Lesser said. “The conversation is very different this year than last year in large part because of the work of the administration.”

No state legislator working on the issue has received more assistance from the White House than Maryland’s Pugh.

January last year, with the Maryland bill moving toward committee hearings, Obama visited a coffee shop near downtown Baltimore to promote paid family leave and paid sick leave. Later in the month, Pugh scored a seat with First Lady Michelle Obama for the president’s State of the Union address, in which Obama called on state and local governments to enact paid family leave. Pugh said White House officials have assured her that the president’s help will include phone calls to legislators in Annapolis, the state capitol, if she needs help rounding up votes.

In the earlier push to win minimum wage increases, Vice President Joe Biden made calls to state legislators, administration officials said.

“It’s not a substitute for federal policy,” Jarrett said. “But we believe that we are helping millions of people through these campaigns and that those campaigns will ultimately create momentum that will put pressure on Congress to step up.”

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