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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On fathers' responsibility, Obama gets a little personal

It's unprecedented. Barack Obama is using his campaign for president to upbraid African-American men who abandon their children.
The Illinois senator's politically risky message highlights a stark and very personal contrast between his upbringing and that of rival John McCain.
In a speech delivered Sunday to the congregation of the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, the Democratic presidential nominee lamented that too many fathers "have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men ... nowhere is this more true than in the African-American community."
This is the racial equivalent of Nixon going to China. While social conservatives like to draw attention to the unwillingness of too many young black men to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood, Democrats and liberals are more likely to focus on social barriers and systemic racism.
But lately, it is liberal African-Americans themselves who have taken up the issue. The comedian and commentator Bill Cosby caused a stir last year when he published a book arguing that black culture, including its music and its attitude toward education, sends the wrong message to both young men and young women, who too often behave irresponsibly as a result.
It is a message that Mr. Obama has also taken up, both in his book The Audacity of Hope and during this campaign. On Sunday, the challenges facing black families dominated his address.
"We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled since we were children," he told the congregants, as he recited a litany of grim statistics: "Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; they're nine times more likely to drop out of schools, 20 times more likely to end up in prison ....
"Any fool can have a child," he said. "That doesn't make you a father. It's the courage to raise a child that makes you a father."
Like any good liberal Democrat, Mr. Obama believes that government can help, which is why the senator is calling for increased federal funding for maternity leaves, prekindergarten and teachers. He would also provide job training and tax credits to fathers who meet their child-support obligations and would provide in-home nursing support for expectant and new mothers.
But ultimately, Mr. Obama stressed, only mothers and fathers can raise a child. That, he said, means turning off the television or taking away the computer game and helping your child with her homework.
It means not treating your child's Grade 8 graduation as though it were a major event. "You're supposed to graduate from the eighth grade," he told the crowd, to laughter and applause.
Most important, it means thinking less about yourself and more about your obligations to others.
"I say this knowing that I have been an imperfect father," who is too often missing from his own home, Mr. Obama added. And he said it knowing, as well, how different his own upbringing was from that of his Republican opponent.
Mr. McCain likes to declare that "I'm the son and grandson of admirals." He calls them the first heroes he ever knew and describes his relationship with them in his book Faith of My Fathers.
Mr. Obama, by contrast, spent much of his youth trying to come to terms with his father - an ambitious young Kenyan who made it all the way to the University of Hawaii, where he met and married Mr. Obama's mother, before going on to Harvard.
But Barack Obama Sr. abandoned his wife and son and returned to Africa. Mr. Obama was partly raised by his mother's second husband, Lolo Soetoro, in Jakarta, and at the age of 10 was sent back to Hawaii, where his mother's parents looked after him.
"I messed up more often than I should have, but I got plenty of second chances," Mr. Obama told the congregation. His first book, Dreams from My Father, explores the candidate's search for personal identity in the face of such a cosmopolitan upbringing.
It is uncertain what political advantage Mr. Obama hopes to gain from raising this subject. Liberal critics, both black and white, might take issue with his insistence on the importance of personal responsibility - a theme usually appropriated by the right.
But Mr. Obama's message will score points with voters who distrust and resent the obsession with victimization that characterizes many leaders of the black community. It is Mr. Obama's refusal to embrace that mantra that had some African-American critics accusing him last year of being not black enough. "Now I'm too black," he joked Sunday, referring to resistance to his candidacy among some white, working-class voters.
Whatever the political consequences, however, it appears Mr. Obama intends throughout the campaign to press home his message of the need for parental responsibility.
"I know the toll it took on me, not having a father in the house," he said Sunday, "the hole in your heart when you don't have a male figure in the home ... so I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle; that if I could do anything in life, I would be a good father to my children."
Whatever else this message is, it is deeply personal.

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