Father's Day: For Obama, more than just a card and tie

Addressing fatherlessness has been a priority of the Obama administration. A day after Father’s Day, Obama announced the President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during a Father's Day event in Washington, Monday.

Under President Obama, the once-perfunctory White House marking of Father’s Day has become a significant theme, with policy implications.

Over the past year, officials from the Obama administration held a six-city listening tour on responsible fatherhood to help develop programs that address fatherlessness. On Monday, Mr. Obama announced next steps via a President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, including:

• A proposal for a new Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund, designed to expand on local fatherhood and family-strengthening programs across the United States.

• Funding through the Department of Labor for transitional jobs programs to help noncustodial parents become prepared for and find work.

• Creation, by the Justice Department, of “fathering reentry courts” for fathers as they are leaving the criminal justice system. The goal is to connect fathers with employment, allowing them to make child-support payments and reconnect with their families.

IN PICTURES: Father's Day

Obama extended Father’s Day into Monday, delivering remarks on fatherhood at an arts and recreation center in southeast Washington called the ARC, followed by a Father’s Day “mentoring barbecue” on the South Lawn of the White House.

“Fathers are our first teachers and coaches – or in my house, assistant teachers and assistant coaches [laughter] – to mom,” Obama said in his remarks at the ARC. “But they’re our mentors, our role models. They show us by the example they set the kind of people they want us to become.”

Later, he emphasized that there’s only so much government can do about chronic fatherlessness in America. “Now, I can’t legislate fatherhood – I can’t force anybody to love a child,” Obama said. “But what we can do is send a clear message to our fathers that there is no excuse for failing to meet their obligations.”

Obama took up the theme of fatherhood in his 2008 presidential campaign, speaking of his own absent father and how his mother and grandparents tried to fill the void. He returned to that topic on Monday, saying that in spite of their efforts, he “still felt the weight of [his father’s] absence.” Obama’s quest to understand his father – and ultimately himself – was the subject of his bestselling 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”

Some African-Americans have been uncomfortable with Obama’s outspokenness on parenting issues, as it can appear that he is airing the black community’s dirty laundry before a national audience. Comedian Bill Cosby encountered a similar reaction in 2004 when he took some African-Americans to task for their parenting practices.

But this White House has clearly made a determination that Obama can speak to certain pathologies prevalent in minority communities as no other president can. At times, the message comes not in a speech, but in actions. Obama and his wife, Michelle, regularly attend events at their daughters’ schools, including performances, parent-teacher conferences, and sports.

Last Friday evening, Obama kicked off Father’s Day weekend by taking his girls to the Chicago White Sox-Washington Nationals baseball game.

The White House also appeared to break new ground in this year’s annual Father’s Day proclamation. Obama referred to families with “two fathers,” possibly the first time a presidential Father’s Day statement has taken a bow to gay parenting.

"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.

IN PICTURES: Father's Day


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