Walking into a group discussion at the White House about fatherhood last month, it took President Barack Obama only a few minutes to start talking about the absence of his own father for most of his childhood.
“I had a heroic mom and wonderful grandparents who helped raise me and my sister,” Obama told an audience of about 100. “That doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel my father’s absence. That’s something that leaves a hole in a child’s heart that a government can’t fill.”
That event on the Friday before Father’s Day was part of a flurry of efforts by Obama to use his personal history and his new bully pulpit to urge fathers to take a greater role in their children’s daily lives.
Obama spent much of the day touring Washington area nonprofits and schools to preach the importance of fathers taking responsibility and urging youths not to follow in the footsteps of their absent fathers.
He later delivered the same message to those gathered in the East Room of the White House for a panel discussion about fatherhood.
“Our government can build the best schools with the best teachers on Earth, but we still need fathers to ensure that the kids are coming home and doing their homework, and having a book instead of the TV remote every once in a while,” Obama said.
The president later returned to the topic of TV, but with a lighter tone. “I like watching the highlights,” he said, calling out a beaming NBA all-star Dwyane Wade sitting behind him, drawing chuckles from the crowd. “But sometimes instead of watching the third, fourth, fifth time SportsCenter, I just watch it once, so that I can then spend time with the girls.”
Before Obama entered the East Room, White House staffer Michael Strautmanis led a brief panel discussion with five fathers, including community activist and NBA player Etan Thomas and Joe Jones, president and founder of the fatherhood program Center for Urban Families.
That same day, legislation promoting active fatherhood was re-introduced down the road on Capitol Hill. The Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act, co-sponsored by Obama when he was a senator in the last Congress, was introduced by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). The bill includes provisions for financial support, training and counseling for low-income or unemployed “active” fathers.