Maryland is home to 314,000 people employed by the federal government — a tenth of the state's workforce — and another 250,000 federal contractors. Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering an increase to the state's minimum wage.
Democrats have been pressing for months for legislation to address the nation's widening gap between the rich and poor. In addition to the minimum wage, they sought to frame the debate over extending federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed as part of that larger theme.
More than 25,000 Marylanders were receiving the extended benefits when they were cut off at the end of December.
Democratic strategists believe the minimum wage issue is one that could find bipartisan backing in the pressure of an election year. Recent polls show a large majority of Americans — nearly three-quarters of the public in a Pew Research poll conducted earlier this month — favor raising the minimum wage although Republicans are sharply divided on the issue.
Republican lawmakers have pushed back on the idea, arguing that Washington's focus should be on job creation and that an increase in the minimum wage could harm the recovery.
"Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington lawmaker who was chosen to give the Republican response to Obama's speech.
"Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president's policies are making people's lives harder," she said.
The president said he will speed up implementation of the ConnectEd program, his plan to connect all schools to the digital universe, and the administration suggested that would be paid for in part by philanthropic partnerships.
Obama also said he would create a new "starter savings account" to help people who don't have 401K plans or pensions to save for retirement.
Despite the political rancor of the past year, which culminated in a 16-day shutdown of federal agencies in October, there have been recent signs of bipartisanship in Washington. Lawmakers approved a federal budget relatively quickly in December, and House Republicans have signaled a willingness to consider an overhaul of the nation's immigrations law.
The first test this year of whether lawmakers have truly moved beyond the longstanding battles over the deficit will come next month, when Congress faces its latest deadline to raise the nation's debt ceiling. The once-procedural vote has become a rallying point for rank-and-file conservatives to seek spending reductions in the budget.
Obama planned to use the next several days to try to gin up support for the minimum wage increase and other policies during a series of trips across the country, beginning in Prince George's County, on Wednesday. The president is scheduled to visit a Costco in Lanham before traveling to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek supported Obama's reelection effort in 2012 and has long backed an increase in the minimum wage.
Republicans downplayed the idea that Obama's speech or subsequent travel would have much of an impact on policymaking or the fall elections. Harris argued that the speech itself has lost much of its import in modern politics.
"The State of the Union may have been far more useful in the days when presidents didn't give speeches very regularly, very nationally," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "The president gives nationally broadcast speeches every week or two."
The Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this story.