By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 12:00 AM
HONOLULU - President Obama doesn't seem to shy away from the divisive social and cultural topics that Americans are debating in their living rooms, gyms and workplaces.
He has spoken out about the responsibility of fathers to raise their children, has condemned the arrest of a prominent black Harvard professor who said he was the victim of racial profiling, was heard chastising Kanye West for the rapper's rude behavior at the MTV Video Music Awards, and recently said his views on gay marriage were "evolving" from his previous opposition.
On Monday, the buzz was about how the president had weighed in on the redemption of Michael Vick. Obama phoned the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles to praise the team for giving a second chance to the quarterback, who is again a National Football League star 19 months after leaving prison for his role in a horrific dogfighting ring that killed pit bulls by electrocution, hanging and drowning.
The president has not spoken publicly about the call, though aides acknowledged that it took place. But Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told Peter King of Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports that during their conversation Obama was passionate about Vick's comeback.
"He said, 'So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,' " said Lurie, who did not indicate when the call occurred. "He said, 'It's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.' And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.''
Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, said Obama "of course condemns the crimes that Michael Vick was convicted of, but, as he's said previously, he does think that individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again."
Burton added that Obama called Lurie in part to discuss plans for the use of alternative energy at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play.
Vick, whom endorsers shunned after the dogfighting controversy, is now the pitchman for a Nissan dealer in Woodbury, N.J., outside Philadelphia. But the general manager of the dealership acknowledged in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer that he had taken some criticism for embracing the quarterback.
Fans in Philadelphia and elsewhere have generally stopped bringing anti-Vick signs to games as they did last year, but Vick's emergence as one of the league's top players - and a most-valuable-player candidate - has revived debate about whether he should be so enthusiastically embraced less than two years after he left prison.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Obama's call was appropriate, noting that Vick himself has given speeches around the country apologizing for his crimes.
"Obama's a sports guy, Vick's a sports guy, and comebacks and redemption can happen," said Ingrid E. Newkirk, the group's co-founder and president. "We all want a president who can lift us up and move us forwards when ugly things happen, but that cannot let us forget and remain watchful to avoid future abuses."
At the same time, Newkirk said, the embrace of Vick by the president carries risks, as many people remain revolted by his crimes. Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to the dogfighting charges and served a 19-month sentence that ended in May 2009. According to court documents, he financed a series of pit-bull fights in which bets were placed. At least six dogs that did not perform well were drowned or hanged.
Soon after his sentence ended, the Eagles signed him.
Newkirk strongly criticized the quarterback's recent remark that he would eventually like to have a pet in his home.
"You don't forget," she said. "In the same way, you would hope a pedophile would get a chance at what he does [in his career], but you wouldn't want him to get another child in his home," she said.
Obama is not the first president to be curious about what Americans are thinking and talking about. President Bill Clinton also urged American fathers to do better, while President George W. Bush condemned the widespread use of steroids in baseball.
Obama's supporters welcome his interest in matters beyond the customary arenas of policy and politics.
"He's not only leader of the government but also a role model and a moral voice for the country," said Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser who is now chief operating officer for the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank. "And that is why he's discussed the role of parents as their children's first teachers, chastised absent fathers, as well as commented on issues that raise ethical concerns in the culture, outside of politics."