December 12, 2012
Obama Family
(Jewel Samad/AFP/GettyImages)

In “The reluctant First Father,” my Post colleague Kathleen Parker takes President Obama to task for not “us[ing] his bully pulpit to emphasize the importance of a two-parent family, and especially of fathers, to children’s well-being.” She couldn’t be more wrong.

“The true story of fatherlessness in this country can’t be repeated often or forcefully enough,” Parker wrote. She went on to cite the high rate of out-of-wedlock births among African Americans. And she cited the controversy surrounding comments made by University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia on the BBC about how single-parent households put black and Latino children at a disadvantage.

Graglia’s head is on the block as various offended parties demand that he be punished for his observations. But imagine for a moment if Obama had said the same things. What if Obama had said, you know, African American kids are as smart as anybody else, but as a group, they are disadvantaged because about 70 percent are born out of wedlock? They are disadvantaged by neighborhoods and a community culture that are often bereft of healthy male role models.

 If the president uttered these words, they would be embraced as irrefutable truths. Who knows how he might alter individual destinies through the simple act of articulating these crucial matters of the human experience.

But the president has uttered words very close to that on many occasions since moving into the White House. In fact, he’s said them so much so that some African Americans complained (erroneously) that Obama only saved his stern lectures on personal responsibility and fatherhood for them.

Obama brought his “we must do better” message to the dinner celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NAACP in July 2009 in New York City.

We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher.  Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face.  But that’s not a reason to get bad grades — (applause) — that’s not a reason to cut class — (applause) — that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school.  (Applause.)  No one has written your destiny for you.  Your destiny is in your hands — you cannot forget that.  That’s what we have to teach all of our children.  No excuses.  (Applause.)  No excuses….

 To parents — to parents, we can’t tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home.  (Applause.)  You can’t just contract out parenting.  For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn.  That means putting away the Xbox — (applause) — putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour.  (Applause.)  It means attending those parent-teacher conferences and reading to our children and helping them with their homework.  (Applause.)

Obama was more specific and more earnest about the role of fathers a month earlier in 2009 at a fatherhood town hall  in the East Room of the White House.  

And when fathers are absent — when they abandon their responsibilities to their children — we know the damage that that does to our families. Some of you know the statistics: Children who grow up without fathers are more likely to drop out of school and wind up in prison. They’re more likely to have substance abuse problems, run away from home, and become teenage parents themselves.

 And I say this as someone who grew up without a father in my own life. I had a heroic mom and wonderful grandparents who helped raise me and my sister, and it’s because of them that I’m able to stand here today. But despite all their extraordinary love and attention, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel my father’s absence. That’s something that leaves a hole in a child’s heart that a government can’t fill.

At a Father’s Day event in 2010, Obama talked about the importance of being present in their children’s lives.

The fact is, it’s easy to become a father, technically — any guy can do that.  It’s hard to live up to the lifelong responsibilities that come with fatherhood….

 But here’s the key message I think all of us want to send today to fathers all across the country:  Our children don’t need us to be superheroes.  They don’t need us to be perfect.  They do need us to be present.  They need us to show up and give it our best shot, no matter what else is going on in our lives.  They need us to show them — not just with words, but with deeds — that they, those kids, are always our first priority….

Now, I can’t legislate fatherhood — I can’t force anybody to love a child.  But what we can do is send a clear message to our fathers that there is no excuse for failing to meet their obligations.  What we can do is make it easier for fathers who make responsible choices and harder for those who avoid those choices.  What we can do is come together and support fathers who are willing to step up and be good partners and parents and providers.

In June 2011, the president stressed the importance of fatherhood during an address to military fathers and their families. “[O]ne of the things that we’ve been trying to do is to stress the importance of fatherhood,” he told them. “We’ve hosted town halls; we’ve supported local programs.  We’ve reached out to over 10,000 dads through our fatherhood pledge. For those fathers who may have trouble living up to their responsibilities, we’re trying to give them some support, but also give them a strong nudge to understand how important they are in the lives of their families.”

And almost exactly a year later, the administration released a 30-page booklet on its work in “Promoting Responsible Fatherhood.”  “Being a dad is one of the most important jobs a man can have,” the report opens. “The greatest advantage a child can have is the love and support of a strong and stable family and the research clearly indicates the benefits to children who have two actively engaged parents.”

Parker called on Obama to use the power of his oratory to get through to fathers. “[N]othing like the power of words: Men, be men. Marry the mother of your children. Be a father to the children you sire. Go home and stay there,” she wrote. “No one could say these things better than Barack Obama.” She’s right. And he has.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.