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Obama's 'national conversation' on fatherhood

The president gathers dads for service projects and a White House town hall meeting, then speaks to young men of 'the hole in a child's heart' left by an absent father.

June 20, 2009|Mike Dorning

WASHINGTON — President Obama, who barely knew his own father, devoted his afternoon Friday to promoting the importance of being a good dad, saying he wanted to start a "national conversation" on the subject.

Two days before Father's Day, Obama attended events related to fatherhood -- gathering famous and not-so-famous dads for a series of service projects around Washington and a White House town hall meeting, then addressing young men on the South Lawn.

He spoke in deeply personal terms of "the hole in a child's heart" left by an absent father and of the powerful influence his Kenyan father exerted during the only visit the senior Obama made after he and the president's mother had divorced. Obama noted that during that visit -- when he was 10 -- his father gave him his first basketball and took him to his first jazz concert, stirring lifelong interests.

"Fathers are our first teachers and coaches, they're our mentors and role models, they set an example of success and push us to succeed," Obama said at the White House. "When fathers are absent, when they abandon their responsibility to their children, we know the damage that does to our families."

Although presidents typically mark Father's Day and celebrate the virtues of family, the attention Obama devoted was unusual. He also wrote an article to appear Sunday in Parade magazine and plans a Father's Day interview on CBS' "Sunday Morning." Friday's White House event was to be followed by regional meetings on fatherhood.

The importance of fatherhood has been a touchstone for Obama throughout his public life, going back to the memoir he wrote after his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The memoir, "Dreams From My Father," explored the role of his absent father in Obama's search for his own identity.

As a politician, he regularly has used Father's Day as an occasion to exhort men, particularly African Americans, to fully embrace the responsibilities of fatherhood.

In 2005, on the first Father's Day after his election to the U.S. Senate, he went to a black church in Chicago to challenge African American fathers to act like "full-grown" men.

He gave similar speeches tied to Father's Day during both years of his presidential campaign, and frequently quotes the statistic that more than half of African American children grow up in single-parent homes.

The fatherhood initiative continues Obama's efforts to ground his life story in the most traditional of values: hard work, advancement by education, and family.

First Lady Michelle Obama describes her preeminent role as "mom-in-chief."

Obama regularly speaks of raising his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and frequently is photographed with his children at his side.

He often said the most difficult part of his grueling two-year campaign for the presidency was the separation from his children, and has said one of his favorite things about life in the White House is that he lives above the office and can usually share breakfast and dinner with his family.

In his essay in Parade, Obama speaks of the struggles that he faces in common with much of the country in balancing work and family life, noting that at times he has been "an imperfect father."

"I know I have made mistakes," he writes. "I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood."

"On this Father's Day, I am recommitting myself to that work, to those duties," he writes, "to build a foundation for our children's dreams, to give them the love and support they need to fulfill them, and to stick with them the whole way through."

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mdorning@tribune.com

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