In his Weekly Address, the President talks personally, but his musings about fatherhood have deep political resonance.
“I grew up without my father around,” he says. “He left when I was two years old, and even though my sister and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful mother and caring grandparents to raise us, I felt his absence. And I wonder what my life would have been like had he been a greater presence...
“That’s why I’ve tried so hard to be a good dad for my own children. I haven’t always succeeded, of course--in the past, my job has kept me away from home more often than I liked.”
What children need most, he concludes, are time, structure and unconditional love. True enough but not the whole story.
As President, Barack Obama has done his best at national fathering, but his own experience deprives him of an essential truth about the role: Children have to know in their bones that, when they are in trouble, their fathers will come and take them home.
One of the best parents I ever knew was a quiet, diffident man who never showed emotion, but when his teen-age son was off in India on drugs, got on the first flight and brought him back safely.
Behind all the clichés about fatherhood is the need for children to feel, no matter how bad things get, they will never be abandoned, that when they fall into a hole, someone will be there for them.
Barack Obama never had that experience and, with the best of intentions, seems unable to communicate to anxious Americans that government is not an enemy under the same national roof but a source of help and support in the hardest times.
He tells fathers to “encourage our children to turn off the video games and pick up a book...pack a healthy lunch for our son, or go outside and play ball with our daughter...teach our children the difference between right and wrong, and show them through our own example the value in treating one another as we wish to be treated.”
All well and good but, as he faces a year of pounding by Republicans, the President will have to learn an essential truth about fathers is that, when you are in trouble, they are the ones you depend on to be there to help save you.
Like it or not, American presidents from “The father of his country” on have assumed a paternal role in the society, and now as Tea Party patriots seem intent on patricide, Barack Obama will have to step up to reassure the rest of us that he understands the symbolism.
Try imagining Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann and Gingrich doing that.