For his first Father's Day as president, Barack Obama is going for it: He wrote the cover essay on fatherhood in this weekend’s Parade magazine, at the White House’s suggestion, and he spent the entire afternoon Friday focused on events devoted to fatherhood and mentoring.
On Saturday, President Obama will address via video a Rally for Responsible Fatherhood taking place on the National Mall. And this summer and fall, the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is organizing events focused on fatherhood.
Obama can hardly be faulted for using his bully pulpit to promote a topic dear to his heart. He has felt the pain of fatherlessness himself: His own father left the family when Obama was just 2. His first memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” conveys the search for identity by a man who knew his own father mostly just from family stories.
As the first black president, Obama holds a special place in a segment of the population where fatherlessness is particularly acute. During his campaign, before African-American audiences – including an address at a black church last Father's Day – he called for more responsible parenting. Turn off the TV and video games, stop serving cold Popeyes chicken for breakfast, and help your kids with their homework, he instructed.
A similar message from comedian Bill Cosby five years ago sparked controversy, as some blacks felt he was blaming the downtrodden and not acknowledging the millions who do right by their children.
For Obama, is there a danger that he overdoes the tough love and starts coming across as a scold?
“African-Americans get the [responsibility] message every Sunday” in church, says Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. “The fact that he should be saying it is OK, except that I don’t know what extra he brings to that message.”
Professor Walters hopes to hear Obama addressing the issue from a policy perspective. “You can’t call on fathers to be responsible when a lot are locked up and kept away from their families,” he says. “There are a lot of loops to be closed.”
On Friday afternoon, Obama visited a job training program for young adults in Arlington, Va., called Year Up, and told 50 trainees not to be discouraged while “the economy is going through a tough time.” Also, at the White House, Obama took part in a town-hall meeting featuring a group of dads – some famous, some not – for a discussion on personal responsibility. And he invited some young men from local schools to the White House.
In his Father's Day proclamation, marking the 100th anniversary of the day dedicated to dads, Obama called on communities to do more to counsel fathers. “Through honest and open dialogue, more men can choose to become model parents and know the wonders of fatherhood,” he said.
There’s a bit of irony in Obama’s push for attentive fatherhood. Both Obamas have spoken of the tensions in their marriage when their children were quite young and Barack was often away from home focusing on his political career. Michelle was left behind managing the home front while holding down a full-time job.
Since winning the presidency, the Obamas seem happy with “life above the store.” President Obama gets to have breakfast and dinner with his kids most days when he’s in town.