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Obama’s Father’s Day Address

E.J. Dionne writes about the importance of this speech from Barack Obama on the subject of fatherhood. Because the subject is a serious one and, of course, one that is deeply personal to Mr. Obama, it is a speech that merits study. It should be praised for what is good in it--a clear exhortation to fathers to be responsible--but we should not consider that it is beyond reproach simply because it takes up this important and much neglected theme. Dionne frets that people will dismiss this speech as a political ploy to get white working class voters overcome what he calls their "suspicions" about a black candidate.

Dionne argues that these suggestions about Barack Obama’s Fathers Day Address (press accounts called it a sermon) are cynical beyond description. Well, I don’t blame a smart liberal like Dionne for liking Barack Obama and I certainly don’t blame him for wishing to see more serious attention given to the question of parental responsibility . . . but to read Barack Obama’s speech on the subject is to stand witness to a piece of good old-fashioned political manipulation. I agree with Dionne that there is more to it than a cynical (and transparent) attempt to win white votes. Obama is too politically clever to waste his time talking for such a crude or unambitious reason. That is for lesser politicians--the likes, say, of Hillary. Obama is the man who promises to stop the rising of the oceans when he is elected. A mere ploy to "win white votes" is beneath his dignity. If that is a side-effect, he’ll take it, I’m sure. But he’s got bigger fish to multiply.

Indeed, the more I read of Obama’s speeches, the more inclined I am to say that they smack of something very old. It is an old political style--in keeping with old American liberal traditions--that of wrapping the personal around the political. Bill Clinton was quite good at this--every State of the Union Address serving as an opportunity to trot out some living testament to awesome powers of liberal political programs. But Bill is a piker (and was criticized by the left as a trimmer) by way of his ambitions; if not by way of his relative success.

Obama speaks in the grand and ambitious style of the Progressive rock stars of old. Obama doesn’t seek just to win a few white voters. He’s after all voters. He wants to remake America in his image. Observe how it is done: In this speech, for example, he moves from the "Rock" of the gospels (he was, after all, in a church) to the "rock" of family and fatherhood to the "rock" of big government programs. He makes this seamless transition by emphasizing what he sees as the central virtue of civic life: "empathy." It is "empathy" (which he distinguishes from sympathy) that demands our government should be "meeting them [fathers] halfway" if they’re doing the best they can. We have to set things up so that it is easier for people to make the right choices . . . government must be there to encourage good behavior and, what’s more, government ought to reward it (with cash, of course). Lots of carrots . . . the sticks go unmentioned. This is probably because he means to remove the natural ones from their intended targets and replace them, instead, with artificial sticks to be used on the less than empathetic.

Notice, too, the list of questions that trouble Barack Obama’s mind as a father contemplating the futures in front of his two young daughters:

But now, my life revolves around my two little girls. And what I think about is what kind of world I’m leaving them. Are they living in a county where there’s a huge gap between a few who are wealthy and a whole bunch of people who are struggling every day? Are they living in a county that is still divided by race? A country where, because they’re girls, they don’t have as much opportunity as boys do? Are they living in a country where we are hated around the world because we don’t cooperate effectively with other nations? Are they living a world that is in grave danger because of what we’ve done to its climate?
That looks like a rather old list of worries too . . . if you’re a leftist. And it’s a weird list for a father, isn’t it? Are these the questions that really ought to take a front and center place in the minds of the absent and negligent fathers Obama means to address? If he really believes they are, then the only thing of real value in this speech was his (too true) criticism of 8th grade graduation ceremonies.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Good analysis. I would add that people have said this before, and that most in Obama's audience had probably heard it before. So, while the speech was not wholly a matter of politics, it also took little courage. I question how much impact it has. Talk is cheap.
Talk that people have heard before is cheaper still. Here again, while Obama has more polish, and interests people more, than most politicians, that does not make him interesting.

In short, the topic is very important. The speech is of no importance.

Thanks for this generous and smart analysis. I'm still trying to grasp how Obama balances national liberal/ Progressive rhetoric with his appreciation of 1) the value of civic engagement 2) "a new kind of politics."

I would love it if Progressives, as Brandeis wrote, believed in US Federalism as great laboratories of democracy. I thought that once the boomer/civil rights movement generation passed that state-level responsibility might return to popularity, but I'm naive about the permanent attachment folks have for the New Deal apparatus.

"naive about the permanent attachment." Yes, you are. In addition, while federalism is important, statism (no pun intended) is the most important issue. And statism on a state level is almost as obnoxious and dangerous, if you live in that state. As for what you're trying to grasp, I think you will be at this game a long time. Obama is a political product, not a political creator, and (to vary the metaphor),
an agent, not a principal. He's also a robotic blatherer, not in any way, shape or form a thinker. Don't be fooled by the Ivy League degrees, the rich voice, and the pensive look. All crap in his case.

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