In a speech to the National League of Cities at the group's annual conference in Washington, D.C., President Obama called on local elected officials to help with a new White House initiative to train low-skill workers for in-demand fields, particularly in technology.
It was the first time a U.S. president addressed a League of Cities event since 1995 when Bill Clinton was president. In past years, the White House sent representatives, such as Vice President Joe Biden, to speak at the conference instead.
After Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate in November, Obama has used the bully pulpit to ask state and local government officials to act on parts of his policy agenda that don't have support in the current Republican-led Congress. His remarks to the League of Cities echoed his two most recent State of the Union addresses, in which he applauded state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage, mandate paid-sick leave and reduce homelessness.
"We worked with many of you to lift the minimum wage while we're waiting for Congress to do something," Obama said. "The National League of Cities has been a great partner in this work."
While the League of Cities is a non-partisan organization, most of its high-profile members are Democratic mayors from large cities. When Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris -- a warm-up act to Obama -- asked the audience if they were happy or unhappy about the midterm elections' results, where Republicans won the U.S. Senate and gained gubernatorial seats, many more hands shot up to say they were unhappy.
The League of Cities' leading legislative priorities, though, don't have a partisan slant. They're largely oriented around giving cities the ability to raise revenue and build infrastructure. Earlier in the morning, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, the group's president, called for closing the online sales tax loophole, passing a long-term funding bill for transportation and protecting the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds. The White House is at odds with city leaders on the last of those items, having proposed a cap on muni bonds' tax exemption that could damage cities' ability to raise capital for building schools, roads, hospitals and other infrastructure projects.
Nonetheless, Becker said Obama was as good a partner as cities have had in a president in the past 40 years. Former mayors occupy top posts in the executive branch, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Jerry Abramson -- former mayors of Charlotte, N.C., San Antonio and Louisville, Ky., respectively. Becker himself sat on a presidential task force with 15 other mayors last year that made recommendations about preparing for climate change.
Obama spent most of his speech talking about Tech Hire, a federal initiative that will involve $100 million in competitive grant funding for local programs that help train and employ low-skill workers for in-demand fields like technology, health care, advanced manufacturing and financial services. The White House is encouraging local communities to experiment with coding boot camps and other forms of training that give workers employable technology skills without requiring the time and expense of a college degree. A group of 21 communities, many of them cities, will share best practices and learn from one another. Aside from the grant funding, a White House fact sheet provided little detail about the federal role in spurring tech employment, except to say that the administration would connect tech-focused communities.
"Ultimately, success is going to rest on folks like you -- mayors, councilmembers, local leaders," Obama said. "You've got the power to bring your communities together and seize this incredible economic development opportunity that will change the way we think about training and hiring the workers of tomorrow."