"Many women can't even get a paid day off to give birth — now that's a pretty low bar," Obama said at the White House Summit on Working Families. "That, we should be able to take care of."
The president is touting paid maternity in the midst of a midterm election campaign focused on women voters, without describing the details of how he would fund such a system. "If France can figure this out, we can figure this out," Obama said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, responded to Obama by announcing he will would outline his vision Wednesday for "how modern conservative reforms can help bring the American Dream within reach for millions of single mothers, young Americans and working families."
"Telling federal agencies to do what they're already supposed to do and endorsing partisan legislation that will never pass is not the sort of bold, innovative leadership we need," Rubio said in a statement.
While some companies offer paid family leave to attract workers, the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act only requires that employers provide unpaid leave for medical and family reasons.
Obama praised California, Rhode Island and New Jersey for creating a state benefit. But he has not endorsed legislation that would create a similar national system funded by a payroll tax, and he pledged in his 2008 presidential campaign not to raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has introduced legislation that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave through a fund in the Social Security Administration, paid for by contributions from employees and employers of 0.2 percent of wages. She said she has personally encouraged the president to back it, despite his tax pledge.
"We're talking about 2 cents of every $10," she said in an interview at the summit. She said without such a fund, eight out of 10 workers can't take advantage of their right for family leave because they can't afford it.
Obama instituted six weeks of paid leave for White House staff when they have a child, get sick or injured or need to care for an ailing family member, using his authority to set his staff's compensation under the personnel code. He does not have the power to award paid leave to other federal workers without congressional action since they are covered under a different section of law. The White House has supported the goal of legislation introduced by lawmakers to change that, but it has stalled in Congress.
"There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us," Obama said. "And that is not the list you want to be on — on your lonesome. It's time to change that."
He also directed federal agencies to expand flexible work arrangements where possible, and Obama chief of staff Dennis McDonough said in a staff memo that includes the White House — a hard-charging environment where long hours are the norm. "I know how hard each of you works to support the president and the nation. Please know that we'll be looking for ways to better support you as well," McDonough wrote.
Obama took four working parents out to lunch at Chipotle before his speech and after met with business leaders with family-friendly policies. He urged Congress to pass legislation requiring employers to accommodate pregnant employees so they can continue to perform their jobs.
The summit included a surprise appearance by a celebrity to echo Obama's criticism of "Mad Men" policies in today's workplace. Christina Hendricks, who plays single mom Joan on the AMC dramatization of a 1960s ad firm, said, "In the 21st century the only place for a story like Joan's should be on TV."
Mrs. Obama closed the summit by encouraging young women not to short-change themselves in career negotiations. And she said she hopes to see a woman in the country's top job as president soon.
"That should happen as soon as possible," she said. "We have some options, don't we?"
Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.
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