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.
As the president noted on Friday, a whole lot of black women are raising kids without their biological dads. But the meaningful question for Obama is this: What can law and society do to support those and all family structures? Rather than carping about absent fathers, he should celebrate and support any kind of family that’s making it work.
For decades, feminists prodded the nation along into doing just that. Legal activists chipped away in the courts at outdated ideas of how families should be built. Court rulings throughout the 1970s reshaped family law, getting rid of what was until then a legal presumption of wives’ dependency on husbands. We got no-fault divorce. Gender-neutral rules for everything from Social Security benefits to alimony. The end of “illegitimate” children as a legal class. Women gained control over their reproductive choices.
Stripped of legal straitjackets, people found family wherever it naturally occurred. In grandparents and uncles and cousins. In coaches and neighbors and lovers—even same-sex ones. We’re still waiting, however, for sensible public policy that supports all of these organic families.
The fatherhood movement is one big reason for the delay. Quayle’s infamous tirade against Murphy Brown’s proud moment as a single mom was first mocked. But over the next couple of years, a small, vocal chorus of conservative sociologists repeated the notion that kids suffer outside of nuclear families often enough that it sounded true. Warren’s group and others began using their studies to advocate against poverty programs. And by 1996, Bill Clinton had co-opted their rhetoric to support welfare “reform” that stripped away all manner of support for poor families.
On Friday, Obama restated as facts the terrible fates to which fatherless children are purportedly damned: prison, drug abuse, dropping out. But while the absence of a father may correlate with these tragedies, so do a whole lot of other bad things.
As family law scholar Nancy Polikoff details in her 2008 book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law, the broad consensus among sociologists is that there’s no consensus on what determines whether a kid will thrive or fail in life. Statistically, everything from prenatal care to family income seems to matter, but it’s a question that defies a hard answer. The factors are too many and too varied to accurately measure, and one of the most crucial factors can’t be measured at all: love.
The only woman given the mic at Friday’s East Room powwow made the strongest point of the day. “We spend so much emphasis on what’s not working,” offered Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner. “How do we talk about what is working?”
Here’s the answer: We focus on organic families like the one in which Obama was raised. Sure, lots of kids would be better off if their dads showed up for duty. Lots of others would be worse off, frankly. But love and support, whatever their source, are good for everybody. The father in chief should use his bully pulpit to make that point, and then go out and pass some laws that support all loving families, whether dad’s around or not.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.