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Obama steps up fatherhood advocacy with new mentoring initiative

By Krissah Thompson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; 2:12 PM

President Obama visited an arts and recreation campus in a low-income Washington neighborhood Monday to tout the importance of fatherhood, and announced a new effort to bring together children, famous dads and nonprofit groups to promote the father-child relationship.

Speaking a day after Father's Day, in what is becoming an annual ritual for the Obama administration, the president acknowledged the limits of government in forcing men to be good fathers, but said society still has an interest in providing support so that fathers can meet their responsibilities to their children.

"I can't legislate fatherhood," Obama told an audience at the ARC in Southeast Washington. "I can't force anybody to love a child. " . . . What we can do is come together and support fathers who are willing to step up."

The President's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative builds on a theme that has been central to Obama's family policy and a core part of the White House's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Obama is asking Congress to allocate $500 million for a Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund, which would give grants to nonprofits that support fathers and families, including job training programs and economic incentives for dads. The initiative will also fund programs to fight domestic violence and help find jobs for men just leaving prison. The goal is to have former prisoners paying child support and reconnecting with their children as soon as possible, officials said.

Administration aides said the initiative expands on ideas generated during a six-city listening tour the administration held last year to bring attention to the issue of fatherlessness.

"The tour was a national conversation on responsible fatherhood that was rooted in the president's personal experiences growing up and his realization that father absence is a real challenge facing many communities," said Joshua DuBois, director of the partnerships office.

The tightened focus on fathers and parental responsibility marks a steady shift from the George W. Bush administration's concentration on traditional marriage, said Chuck Donovan, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former executive vice president at the Family Research Council.

"The economic support for fathers, while important, is not something new for government," he said. "The marriage-building efforts were new and I think they are [being] undernourished."

As he has in past years, Obama noted in his speech that men must take responsibility for their children, and said that the impact of men who ignore those duties is causing serious problems for the kids they abandon and the society that must deal with them. Last year, more than 24 million children did not live with their biological fathers, census figures show. Among low-income children, the figure is two out of three.

"When fathers abandon their responsibilities, there is harm done to those kids," the president said. "They are more likely to live in poverty, they are more likely to drop out of school, they are more likely to wind up in prison."

Obama noted that his own father had left his family when the president was two, and said he still feels "the weight of that absence."

The key message, he said: "Our children don't need us to be superheros. 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."

Obama's special interest in fatherhood has been a boon for groups that support fathers and have been working for years without much attention. "His leadership and using the bully pulpit has been important," said Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which was founded in 1994 and recently contracted with the federal government to produce public service announcements promoting fatherhood.

The administration will also begin issuing an e-newsletter from the Fatherhood.gov Web site, emphasizing the role of fathers in families and offering parenting tips. Outside groups enlisted by the White House will also promote the issue. The NFL Players Association has agreed to hold community forums on responsible fatherhood, and the National Parent Teachers Association, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and other groups will hold events.

On Sunday, meanwhile, Obama made what appears to be the first presidential Father's Day statement that mentions "two fathers."

"Nurturing families come in many forms, and children may be raised by a father and mother, a single father, two fathers, a stepfather, a grandfather, or caring guardian," he said.

The president's appearance at the ARC, a five-year-old nonprofit center that offers sports, art, dance and music lessons to more than 2,000 children and hosts cultural and community events, generated considerable excitement in one of the capital's poorer neighborhoods.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he was struck by Obama's challenge to men, especially his comments that being a father to his daughters is more important than working in the Oval Office.

"A lot of what the president had to say is very important in neighborhoods like this one in SE," Fenty said. "But the president said himself [that] at some point the government can only do but so much for families, and fathers have to step up."

Obama also came to the campus three years ago, during the Democratic primary campaign, to promote his anti-poverty message.

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.

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