But given the widespread anxiety around the economy and growing income gaps, Democrats see the issue as potent, and Obama's speech put it at center stage.
"Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty," he said, promising he would issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay at least $10.10 an hour.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) mirrored Obama's message, saying, "It's a pretty good notion in our country that we think that people who work a 40-hour workweek shouldn't be below the poverty line."
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) called a minimum-wage increase "the right thing to do for workers."
"Getting that in place is not only important for that worker, it's also important for the economy," Casey said before the speech.
Local Republicans, many representing moderate suburbs, expressed openness to a minimum-wage increase but stopped short of firm support and criticized Obama's overall performance on the economy.
"Just increasing the minimum wage isn't going to do a lot for job creation," said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.). "Most members want to talk about how do you grow the pie, how do you get more jobs created at all levels of income, all levels of pay, and that ought to be the primary focus."
Gerlach, a moderate who is not seeking reelection, has supported minimum-wage increases in the past, but said another increase should be tied to tax credits for employers or other incentives to boost the economy.
"The debate on raising the federal minimum wage is one I am open to having," Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.) said in a statement. But before that happens, he added, "all parties" should work "to help businesses mitigate the financial crush they are already experiencing due to Obamacare and other federal regulations."
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) said: "Many of the president's policies simply have not worked to get our country back on the right track." In a statement, the Bucks County Republican said minimum-wage increases should be "taken out of the hands of politicians" and tied to inflation, coupled with reduced taxes or mandates on businesses.
"All Americans want to prosper and be compensated fairly for their hard work," Fitzpatrick's statement said.
Some Republicans have said raising the minimum wage would hurt workers by making new hiring too expensive.
"The president knows that tests well in polls. The fact is, it prices people out of work," Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said outside the House chamber as Obama exited.
An estimated 3.6 million workers earn the federal minimum wage or less, according to a May report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. They account for about 4.7 percent of the nation's hourly workers.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled policies he can implement by executive order. Among them:
Boost the minimum wage for workers hired by firms with federal contracts to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.
Create a retirement savings program for lower-income workers. The "starter" investment plan would be made available to millions of private-sector employees who do not currently have access to a 401(k) or pension.
Protect environmentally sensitive federal lands from development for energy production.
Launch partnerships with major tech and communications companies to get 15,000 schools access to the latest broadband and wireless technology.
- Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau
For the latest news in politics and the nation, visit www.inquirer.com