President Obama waded lightly through every major issue on Americans’ minds in his State of the Union Address Tuesday night, from war to jobs to salaries in those jobs. But the line of the night–a call to abandon “workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode”–was reserved for women, devoid of policy but meant to spark passions.
Unlike many of his past State of the Union addresses, this speech provided the audience with very few ideas, beating senseless the Democrats’ favorite straw man and hoping that the American people would be satisfied with hearing basic and universally accepted beliefs parroted back at them without any thoughts regarding how to make those ideas a reality.
On no other topic was this more obvious than the profoundly American belief that women deserve to be treated as equals in the workforce.
The platitudes came running hard and fast on this one. “Women deserve equal pay for equal work,” President Obama asserted, a commonly held belief in 2014, despite the fact that women in the White House–where President Obama is the boss–do not receive such equal pay, as Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) pointed out after the address. “She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job,” Obama continued, a thought with which no reasonable person disagrees, but which means nothing without a policy initiative to ensure that every woman has proper maternity leave. President Obama called for “all” to “come together … to give every woman the opportunity she deserves.” What exactly does that bill in Congress look like? What is President Obama demanding of Americans that Americans are not already doing? It doesn’t matter. The sentence sounds pretty, makes it seem like President Obama and the Democrats are the only politicians who believe such commonly held ideas, and it received raucous cheers.
Similarly, no reasonable person disagrees that working for Don Draper (or worse, Pete Campbell!) as a woman would be a nightmare. That line received bipartisan applause–perhaps the most of the night–because that is how much we, as a nation, hate Pete Campbell. And it punctuates just how much in-group joy a well-placed pop culture reference can bring to a crowd–so much so that the objective of the speech, proposing new policies for the year, gets lost by the wayside. President Obama could have stood there and proclaimed that it was time to do away with healthcare policies that force law-abiding schoolteachers to establish billion-dollar international methamphetamine cartels and he would have gotten the same applause for a line similarly devoid of substance. It begs the question: how, exactly, does finding bipartisan support for the hatred of fictional characters do anything to improve the state of working women in today’s America, and why make that the centerpiece of your entire speech?
“When women succeed, America succeeds,” concludes this segment of the address. Well, that’s nice.
If President Obama delivered anything that sounded close to substantive in his speech, it was the claim that women “still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.” This, he declared, was “an embarrassment.”
Or at least it would be, if it weren’t a myth debunked long ago. The “77 cents on the dollar” math comes from the U.S. Census, which looks only at raw wages and finds that, in total, men are making more money than women. It does not take into consideration the number of days worked or narrow the scope to study comparable jobs. According to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) released in 2012, factors such as type of job and number of hours worked produce significantly different results. The resulting figure, the “adjusted” wage gap (as opposed to the plain “full-time” gap), left only a 6.6 cent difference in between salaries in the AAUW study. Another study of Census statistics in 2010 found that, limiting the study to looking at single, childless women, women are actually making more than their male peers.
What the President expects Congress to do about the wage gap situation when any close analysis of the numbers seems to find that there is no meaningful wage gap is a question only the President can answer, and he seemed to have no desire to do any such thing last night. His speech was as charming as it was empty–and a threat to the monopoly Democrats falsely insist they have on women’s issues.