He has lamented growing up without a father before. He has acknowledged, in speeches and in a best-selling autobiography, his anger and confusion about that fact. He has admitted youthful drug use and the pull of other temptations.
But with the ornate East Room of the White House as a backdrop, Barack Obama on Thursday became the first U.S. president ever to publicly utter, “I got high.” He said those three, once politically devastating words standing in front of 19 at-risk black and Hispanic teenagers, to remind them that he was once like them.
He was not just the first black president or a black father. He was a concerned black leader seeking to stir public outrage over the disparities in educational achievement and incarceration faced by young minority men — a demographic he once approached with political hesitation for fear he would be accused of racial favoritism.
Early in his presidency, in attempting to sand the rough edges of the George W. Bush administration, Obama would use his story as evidence that the United States — far from bullying and intolerant — is a country that forgives, overcomes and works toward a more perfect union, to use a phrase that he turns to often.
On Thursday, though, he held up his story as a sunny exception to the cloudier rule.
Many young black and Latino men in this country face far steeper hills than their white counterparts — or than he did as a young black man raised in a white middle-class neighborhood in Honolulu. Obama condemned the nation’s apathy toward obstacles to minority progress, and called for greater public attention to knocking them down.
“The group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in 21st century America is boys and young men of color,” the president said. “I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men, the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled — this is a moral issue for our country.”
Obama’s remarks came at an event highlighting a new White House initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” to secure commitments from foundations and businesses to help keep young minority men in the classroom and out of prison. He characterized the moment as part of a “year of action” in which he is using his executive authority to accomplish his goals.
But it was clear that this was no ordinary White House event. Obama was channeling his life experience, from the beaches of Hawaii to the streets of Chicago, and was projecting forward to what he would do when he leaves the White House at age 55.
“The president has made clear the challenges facing young men and boys of color is something of great personal importance to him,” said Valerie Jarrett, his senior adviser and longtime friend. “And for this reason, this initiative is something that is one that the president has been closely involved in every step along the way, and one that he and the first lady will remain committed to after the end of his presidency.”
The initiative features $200 million worth of commitments by organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies to invest in programs that help young black and Hispanic men.
Obama also established a federal task force that will seek to marshal federal programs in the effort. The group will focus on evaluating and promoting the best policies for improving the lives of young men of color, and the best metrics for assessing success or failure.
The president spoke in front of an audience that included many black and Hispanic leaders. Also attending were the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two unarmed black teenagers from Florida who were shot dead in separate incidents, causing national outrage.
It was the shooting of Martin, and the subsequent not-guilty verdict in the jury trial of George Zimmerman, that led Obama to redouble his focus last year on what his administration can do to help young black men. But the president framed his message Thursday as a way to appeal to the entire nation.
“If I can persuade, you know, Sharpton and O’Reilly to be in the same meeting, then it means that there are people of good faith who want to get some stuff done,” he said, referring to opposing television personalities Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly, both of whom attended.
In personal language, Obama sought to make the case that the nation must act as a whole to lift up struggling young men.
“I know if I had a son, on the day he was born, I would have felt everything I felt with Malia and Sasha — the awe, the gratitude, the overwhelming sense of responsibility to do everything in my power to protect that amazing new life from this big world out there,” he said. “I don’t have a son, but as parents, that’s what we should want not just for our children but for all children.”
After speaking nearly 5,000 words, Obama turned away from the microphone and gave a personal message to one of the teenagers, telling him, “I’m counting on you.”