Tough Love From the Father-in-Chief

Barack Obama, whose father abandoned him when he was barely two years old, has come out swinging on male "responsibility" this Father's Day.

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SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama kicks off the Father's Day weekend with a string of events designed to "begin a national conversation on responsible fatherhood and healthy families," according to the White House. 

Much like first lady Michelle Obama's March celebration of women's empowerment, the day of bro-mance hits eight Washington-area nonprofits that mentor young men, and featurez teams of celebrities, businessmen, lawmakers and White House staff that range from Obama aide Reggie Love to Motorola CEO Greg Brown to DeWayne Wade of the Miami Heat. 

Most of the White House ambassadors are black. And all of them will touch on the themes of personal responsibility and engaged fatherhood that have captivated the president since his career-making memoir, Dreams From My Father—and perhaps long before.  

Throughout his political career, Obama has demonstrated a special fixation on responsible fatherhood, especially in black community—and this outreach, complete with a town-hall with American dads in the East Room of the White House, is just the most recent example.  Fatherhood is one of the four major, coequal priorities of Obama's revamped Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As a senator, Obama, with Sen. Evan Bayh, drafted the still un-passed "Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act," which streamlines child support payments, provides job training and tax credits to fathers, and strengthens child support enforcement practices. And last year candidate Obama, who had only just won the Democratic nomination for president, delivered an admonishing, scripture-laden, pro-parenting Sunday sermon at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. 

There, the politician whose own father abandoned him at an early age urged black men in particular to accept personal responsibility for their lives and families: 

"If we are honest with ourselves," he said, "we'll admit that... too many fathers also are missing--missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it." 

In that previous speech Obama rattled off the stunning statistics for black families cleaved in two: Fatherless kids are "five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of school and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from homes." 

In a classical preacher's cadence, Obama concluded that enough is enough: "We need [men] to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child—it's the courage to raise one." 

Many campaign watchers, of all races, applauded Obama's speech as a "Sister Souljah moment" that showed the true value of a black presidential candidate: saying things that white politicians could not—or, as Jesse Jackson famously put it soon after, "talking down to black people." But these analyses missed the point: Black leaders, including Jackson, have been urging responsible fatherhood and stand-up-straight living for as long as there have been black pulpits to preach from. At the 2006 Essence Festival in Dallas, for example, televangelist and author T.D. Jakes said "Fatherhood is not optional.... Rather than focusing on the father’s that left, we need to focus on the ones who stayed."  

Obama's "real talk"  is nothing new—but his status as the "first father" gives him an unprecedented and unique platform. In an essay for Parade magazine and a proclamation released today, Obama declared that "honest and hard-working fathers are an irreplaceable influence upon their children." Of course, it's unlikely that Obama can singlehandedly change the statistics for deadbeat dads and out-of-wedlock births. But this year, the first black president has recruited some high profile company in his bully pulpit.