Joan Vennochi

The ‘Mad Men’ of D.C.

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 17, 2011

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TV’S “MAD Men’’ would be pleased. It’s back to Ike and Mamie for the Obama White House.

The president’s budget doesn’t attack entitlement spending. But it would bring discretionary domestic spending as a portion of the budget down to the level of the Eisenhower years, White House senior adviser David Plouffe and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling boasted during a conference call with reporters earlier this week.

With proposed cuts to community service block grants and energy assistance for low-income families as well as a restructuring of student loan programs, Obama’s budget is a repudiation of his own life story. It’s also a repudiation of a mindset about what government can and should do to help the powerless and disadvantaged in American society.

Obama’s two budget spinners called this a “pro-innovation budget.’’ But, Ike and innovation hardly compute.

The Eisenhower administration wrapped up an era that Don Draper & Co. conveyed brilliantly when their television series was first launched. On Madison Avenue, the Scotch flowed as women in constricting, hourglass-revealing clothing waited on men in the kitchen and the office.

It was a time before civil rights for African Americans and equal rights for women, when US space exploration lagged behind the Soviet Union’s. It was also a time before government embraced a clear and accepted role in leveling the playing field between the haves and have-nots. There were two Americas and no one in power thought it was their job to do much about it. You played the cards you were dealt.

Then came the election of John F. Kennedy, his electrifying call for citizen action and the concept of “vigor’’ as an element of government. Out of it sprang a collective sense of responsibility for making the country stronger and better for everyone, and with it, the willingness to commit taxpayer money to make that happen. Decades later, it has come to the point where a Democrat with Obama’s personal history has to camouflage his concern for Americans who face the same obstacles he did. And, he’s proposing these cuts even as he admits they don’t solve the deficit problem.

The symbolism is important, not the savings. That’s all anyone needs to know to understand how dramatic the shift in popular thinking.

Obama is touting his budget as “invest and grow,’’ with money targeted to infrastructure, scientific research, education, and job creation. Liberals are supposed to weigh his proposals against the “slash and burn’’ mentality of Republicans and conclude the White House approach is the lesser of two budget evils. But liberals aren’t the target. The White House is mostly pitching to independents, who are key to Obama’s reelection.

So now it’s time to tout a spending plan that goes back to an era when a president’s favorite outlet was golf, and a first lady famously announced, “Ike runs the country, I turn the lamb chops.’’ Obama added basketball to the presidential repertoire and the current first lady grows vegetables and promotes healthy food. But how much has really changed if they reflect an administration that is afraid to stick up for government’s role in funding a safety net for the most vulnerable?

It’s not like Obama is getting any credit from Republicans for cutting off block grants and fuel assistance. No matter how far he goes in turning his back on liberalism, it is never far enough. Once Republicans painted Obama as a “socialist,’’ they won’t change the picture no matter how many poor families go cold.

But those families probably won’t go cold, and that’s also part of Obama’s calculation. He’ll rely on liberals like Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts to lead the fight on their behalf. “It’s an understatement to say we have tough budget decisions to make, but there’s a ton I’ll cut before we slash home heating help in a brutal winter,’’ said Kerry with the passion Obama can’t show, if he even feels it.

As Plouffe said, “Budgets really are a reflection of priorities.’’ This one reflects one priority: victory in 2012.

The “Mad Men’’ of Washington are no different than the “Mad Men’’ of Madison Avenue. Winning is everything.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at