Rich Lowry: President Obama's potent changes

There are few, if any, people who have more moral authority in the black community than President Barack Obama. Last week, he put it to good use.

The president launched the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, aimed at fostering achievement among minority young men. He gathered black and Latino teenagers in the East Room of the White House to exhort them in a highly personal speech.

He recounted visiting a program in Chicago for promising kids who have gotten into some trouble. They sat in a circle and shared their stories. “I explained to them,” the president said, “that when I was their age I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

This is a potent message from one of the most powerful and famous men on the planet to kids who find themselves growing up in exactly such tough circumstances. He coupled his message of encouragement with a call to reject “excuses” and to realize “you’ve got responsibilities, too.”

At times, the president spoke in terms you would expect to hear at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He cited the dismaying numbers of black and Latino kids who grow up in fatherless households, before noting, “We know that boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor, more likely to underperform in school.”

It may have been the most conservative speech of his presidency (granted, a low bar), in that it acknowledged contributions of family that can’t be replaced by government. No one will ever mistake President Obama for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the social scientist turned senator who angered the left with his inconvenient observations about the breakdown of the black family, but there was a touch of Moynihan in the speech.

The president plugged his usual programmatic hobbyhorses, although with some humility. When it comes to the lives of these kids, government interventions “cannot play the only — or even the primary — role.”

“We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age,” he continued, “but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child. We can reform our criminal-justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”

For all its virtues, though, the speech was incomplete. The building block of family is, of course, marriage, a word that the president uttered only once, when he said we should remove “the barriers to marriage.” He didn’t say that couples should marry before they have kids and that fathers should be married to the mothers of their children. He said instead, in deliberately hazy language, that “we need to encourage fathers to stick around.”

But the absent-father crisis is almost entirely a function of the breakdown of marriage. “For most men, marriage and fatherhood are a package deal,” University of Virginia scholar Bradford Wilcox points out. “If you want one, you need the other.” President Obama has often said that he set the goal for himself of being a better dad than his own AWOL father. But it’s not just that Obama is involved in his daughters’ lives, it’s that he’s married to Michelle.

The president doesn’t want to outrage elite left-wing sensibilities by forthrightly advocating heterosexual marriage. So he leaves out the one institution that can have the biggest impact on the lives of children that he is sincerely passionate about. Until he is willing to cross this cultural red line, his bully pulpit can only be half-full.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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