Senator Barack Obama has said that too many fathers "engage in childish things. (They) are more concerned about what they want than what's good for other people." Sound familiar? Seems that the Illinois Democrat -- who is today's cultural and political phenomenon -- has taken a cue from Saint Paul. Obama, as the first major black presidential candidate in recent history, has an unprecedented opportunity: To lead a fatherhood revolution. And he knows it. Speaking at Christ Universal Temple in Chicago on Father's Day 2005, he preached the Word and channeled Bill Cosby, known these days less for his comedy than for his lectures to black men about taking responsibility as fathers and husbands. Obama said, "There are a lot of folks, a lot of brothers, walking around, and they look like men. And they're tall, and they've got whiskers -- might even have sired a child. But it's not clear to me that they're full-grown men."
It's not shocking that Obama would latch onto such a message -- and leadership role. Now that he's launched a presidential exploratory committee he knows it's smart politics. But it's also a natural for him. In recent weeks the press spent a few days talking about Obama's "coke problem." In his 1995 book, "Dreams from My Father," he wrote, as if preparing an opponent's attack ad: "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed." That part was heavily quoted in the media. But he added a less-quoted part: "the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man."
Read on. In that book and in his recent bestseller, "The Audacity of Hope," you will learn about his father, whom young Obama knew only from mothball-covered photos, stories, and letters from Kenya, his father's native land. (His parents divorced when he was two.)
Without complaining, Obama relays that "as I got older I came to recognize how hard it had been for my mother and grandmother to raise us without a strong male presence in the house. I felt as well the mark that a father's absence can leave on a child. I determined that my father's irresponsibility toward his children, my stepfather's remoteness, and my grandfather's failures would all become object lessons for me, and that my own children would have a father they can count on."
Now the father of two daughters, Obama's focusing on more than his familial responsibilities. Sounding more like a social conservative than a liberal Democrat -- he lauds welfare reform, teen-pregnancy prevention, and just stops short of speaking the right-wing language of personal responsibility and abstinence. ("I want to encourage young people to show more reverence toward sex and intimacy, and I applaud parents, congregations, and community programs that transmit that message," he writes.) He says that "policies that strengthen marriage for those who choose it and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are sensible goals to pursue."
He knows the facts of life in America. And, especially, life for too many black people in America: "In the African-American community ... it's fair to say that the nuclear family is on the verge of collapse ... Between 1960 and 1995, the number of African-American children living with two married parents dropped by more than half; today 54 percent of all African-American children live in single-parent households, compared to about 23 percent of all white children." Of course, Obama is no social conservative -- and he makes that clear. But he sorts out his differences with us with a skilled gloss. He makes clear that he values the so-called right to privacy but that reasonable people can argue about abortion. He's not going to rant against Planned Parenthood -- and he's going to vote with them -- but knows they don't have all the answers.
His voice is important. Even if, as Kay Hymowitz writes in her new book, "Marriage and Caste in America," "bringing a reliable dad into the home of the 80 percent or so of inner city children growing up with a single mother is a task of such psychological and sociological complexity as to rival democracy-building in Iraq."
During the 2006 elections, campaign staffers would frequently relate to me how Maryland parents would bring their children to events for Senate candidate Michael Steele. They would say that they simply wanted their kids to see and hear Steele, a black Republican, a husband and father, who leads by example. Steele lost the race, but he's also a winner -- a straight-talking role model. As with fatherhood, absence is the only sure-fire way to lose -- a message surely not lost on Barack Obama.