(Traditional) Fathers Don’t Always Know Best

The notion that kids can’t develop properly without a biological father was a lie when Dan Quayle asserted it in 1992, and it’s a lie when Barack Obama says it now.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Who’s your daddy? Barack Obama, that’s who. We haven’t seen black family role modeling like this since the Huxtables. Actually, Cliff and Clair couldn’t touch the Obamas—they didn’t have Bo. Still, the president’s not content with his own nuclear family bliss. He really, really wants you to have a great dad, too.

But the problem with Obama’s effort to turn Father’s Day into an annual conversation about the tragedy of failed fathers is that it’s rooted in one of the greatest—and most consequential—lies the Christian right has sold the country: That “traditional” family structures are best equipped to produce healthy kids. The notion that biological fathers are essential to childhood development wasn’t true when Dan Quayle asserted it in 1992, and it won’t become true no matter how eloquently Barack Obama restates it.

“The hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill,” Obama wrote in a beautifully crafted Parade magazine essay last week. “We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference.”

This is a terribly moving refrain that echoes through all of the president’s rhetoric on fathers—and it’s entirely beside the point. Nobody sane would argue that government can give a child love. That truism, however, does not mean only a gendered dyad of parents are adequately equipped to do so.

The subject is no doubt a deeply personal one for the president and has long been part of his political persona. He grew up without his father in a non-traditional family: one working mom and two grandparents. As he told a group of young men he gathered in the East Room on Friday to discuss “responsible fatherhood,” he still feels his dad’s absence today. That’s clearly more than rhetoric; he wrote a whole book about it.

But for all the lessons we’ve all tried to glean from Obama’s remarkable life, his childhood offers perhaps the most clear one: Love and support are the key ingredients for a healthy family. After all, Obama’s fatherless family produced a president.

In fact, the most striking thing about the White House’s summit on how terrible it is when traditional family structure breaks down was how many people in the room disproved the conceit. The vice president was a single dad for five years, and his kid grew up to be a state attorney general. Roland Warren—who heads the National Fatherhood Initiative, a foundational group in the right’s “traditional” family movement—was the first victim of irresponsible fatherhood to testify. “I grew up without my dad as well,” he commiserated with the president, “and [I] went to Princeton and things of that nature, but still needed him.” Princeton. What a failure.