BOSTON — Despite all the public political images that surround a president, it is his family image that often remains indelibly fixed in public memory. First families hold a strong appeal. Knowing this, presidents have carefully cultivated an image as the Good Father, the head of a loving and close-knit family.
Now it is President Clinton's turn to parlay that private role into a public-service ad campaign portraying him as a concerned, hard-working father. Created by the nonprofit Ad Council in conjunction with the Coalition for America's Children, the ads, debuting this week, are designed to garner support for parents.
Under a photo of the Clintons with daughter Chelsea, Mr. Clinton says, "The toughest job in the world isn't being President. It's being a parent." Citing drugs, crime, and "other problems" facing families, he explains that parenthood "is a job none of us can do alone."
In his role as First Dad, Clinton doesn't mention that fund-raising for being a parent can be harder than fund-raising for being president. It's a rough financial trail, even before those $100,000 college bills come due.
But money can still rank below some of the "other problems" parents face, among them less time, more responsibility, and not enough respect.
Consider the time crunch. Because of growing concerns about safety and crime, children are increasingly less likely to walk or ride bicycles when they want to go somewhere. In a new study from the Institute of Health in London, researchers report that between 1985 and 1992, the average distance British children under 15 walked in a year fell 20 percent, from 247 miles to 197 miles. The average distance they bicycled fell 25 percent, from 38 miles to 28 miles. The distance they traveled by car increased an average of 40 percent.
Who's driving all those cars? Most likely, their parents. Yet the role of parent-as-chauffeur conflicts mightily with that other essential role, parent-as-breadwinner. Despite corporate pieties about policies that support families, workers who take time off for children's needs can be invisibly branded with a scarlet P for parenthood - in particular an M for motherhood - and quietly taken off the promotion list.
Still, that doesn't mean that parents who stay home are any more highly regarded. For all the lip service to family values, the old dinner-party question, "What do you do?" often demands a corporate title as a correct response. Full-time parents can identify with Rodney Dangerfield: They don't get no respect either.
For errant parents, public attitudes are growing even more intolerant. Fathers who fail to pay child support? Label them all deadbeat dads, whatever their situation, and lock 'em up. Mothers who use drugs while they're pregnant? Throw them in jail too, while you're at it.
Even for law-abiding parents, responsibility involves increasing legal threats. Parents who once might have fretted about small, private incidents - paying for a neighbor's window broken by a wayward baseball - now face the prospect of public punishment and fines if children disobey city curfews or, in the case of welfare recipients, if children skip school.
By all accounts Clinton, whatever his failings as a president, is the devoted father he portrays himself to be. Parents can do far worse than to have him as their ally, even when, as in this case, his advocacy is criticized by some opponents as being more about politics than public service. But what parents most need is something even a caring First Dad cannot give.
Yes, he can argue for tax codes that don't include marriage penalties, for tax breaks on college tuition, and for kinder, gentler laws that don't unnecessarily punish already beleaguered families. But he can't legislate respect or redesign clocks to include more family time. Accomplishing that will require more than a bully pulpit, however compassionate.