Obama's cheapest pop-culture reference - Macleans.ca

Obama’s cheapest pop-culture reference

That time that Mad Men cracked the State of the Union address


Charles Dharapak/AP

“It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong  in a Mad Men episode.” —U.S. President Barack Obama, during the 2014 State of the Union address

The best presidential speeches are timeless—rooted in history and tethered to events, sure, but never dated. Americans often recall the day that lived in infamy at Pearl Harbor, their first Catholic president’s stirring appeal to think not of what their country can do for them, and their aging cold warrior’s forceful request that a longtime foe tear down a wall in Berlin. Historians need not remind most Americans of their presidents’ finest moments. Those rhetorical flourishes, so treasured in posterity, will live forever.

President Barack Obama has a way with words that helped him get elected not once, but twice. Last night, he strode into the U.S. Capitol, stood in front of a joint session of Congress, and told Americans and the world about the state of his union. He spoke of fixing Washington, and getting Americans back to work, and achieving energy independence, and spending more on education. Obama urged employers across the nation to stop paying women less than men for doing the same job, a passionate plea for pay equity.

“A woman deserves equal pay for equal  work.  She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job.  A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship—and you know what, a father does, too,” he said. And then, with a flourish, Obama asked the employers of the nation to dig deep. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong  in a Mad Men episode.” Laughter from those assembled. Chuckles, surely, from the nation’s living rooms. The pop culture reference was folksy, in its own way, and made clear that the president knows what’s popular on TV. But imagine, years from now, when a young student cracks open a history book and recalls the defining speech of 2014.

No way in hell would JFK have called for renewed civic duty by reminding his people of the goodness of Andy Griffith. Ronald Reagan, an actor though he may have been, wouldn’t have piggybacked on MacGyver‘s American-bred ingenuity as he eviscerated the Communist regime he so despised.

Obama made just a single Mad Men reference, it’s true. The pop-culture appeal won’t define his tenure, not even close, and the pay-equity fight will outlive this speech’s memory. But the man who roused a nation simply by opening his mouth has lost much of that rhetorical prowess. Now, he resorts to pop culture. Madison Avenue’s finest admen would be hard-pressed to sell that speech.


Globe: President Barack Obama will raise the federal minimum wage without Congress.

Post: Canada should consider the annexation of Turks and Caicos.

Star: Canada’s interim privacy commissioner wants more oversight of spy agencies.

Citizen: Chantal Bernier also wants spy agencies to change how they collect data.

CBC: Carl Campeau escaped eight months of imprisonment at the hands of al-Qaeda.

CTV: A snowstorm rocked the American deep south, and led to chaos on the roads.

NNW: Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq attended a reception in her honour.


Near: A former oil lobbyist consulted on the future of scientific research lakes in Ontario.

Far: Police officers in the Philippines allegedly used a “wheel of torture” to punish prisoners.


Obama’s cheapest pop-culture reference

  1. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”

    The Guardian Feb 2013:

    There will be something different this year about President Obama’s final cohort: no Hillary Clinton and, frankly, few senior women at all.

    Team Obama 2.0 is shaping up to be whiter and more masculine, especially in the marquee posts: John Kerry as Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, Jack Lew at treasury and John Brennan as CIA director. Add to that list Denis McDonough as the new White House chief of staff.

    Don’t get me wrong: each of these men has solid credentials, and there’s no doubt Obama wants the best people for the job. But someone has to say it: it’s hard to believe that in a nation of 313m people, there aren’t a few women or minorities who are also qualified for these jobs.

    • The Guardian Feb 2013??

  2. I believe Reagan started the press-conference after the Americans stuck in Iran were returned with “I just saw that film Rambo. I guess I know what to do next time.”

  3. I thought this was supposed to be a serious factual column not an opinion piece especially when the opinion is so facile and pointless as this. A definition of cheap shot. Not a review of today’s media anymore? OK I’ll skip it and stick with Wells for opinions.

    • There’s a good argument to be made, and perhaps I failed to do so, that things like pop-culture references are guilty of the same fault you’ve found with the post; namely, that a Mad Men reference oversimplifies the very complex issue of pay equity. Last night’s speech, just like many before it, was chock full of one-liners that sure sounded catchy, but dumbed down all kinds of problems facing America.

      Not that the speech was pointless, obviously. It’s an important thing for a lot of reasons. But cheap pop culture references that dumb down issues don’t help.

      • I await Harper’s next ‘Hey Jude’ performance and your commentary.

  4. Obama compares apples to oranges.
    Fact Check: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/the-white-houses-use-of-data-on-the-gender-wage-gap/2012/06/04/gJQAYH6nEV_blog.html

    What’s the difference? The 77 cent figure comes from a Census Bureau report, which is based on annual wages. The BLS numbers draw on data that are based on weekly wages. Annual wages is a broader measure — it can include bonuses, retirement pensions, investment income and the like — but it also means that school teachers, who may not work over the summer, would end up with a lower annual wage.

    In other words, since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics may be less reliable for examining the key focus of the legislation — wage discrimination. Weekly wages is more of an apples-to-apples comparison, but as mentioned, it does not include as many income categories,

    • Yep, there’s plenty of time in a one hour speech to explain detailed economic and demographic footnotes like this, on dozens of complex issues. With brilliant speech writing suggestions like this, maybe the president should fire his current team, and hire a blog commenter!

  5. Quick. A noteworthy line from one of Obama’s speech?

    I think this is more about journalists realizing that he isn’t that good, it is just a mellifluous delivery of nonsense.

    • Or, a dead-on truth about a shameful aspect of American life!