Growing up without a father left a painful hole in his heart, President Barack Obama told a lawnful of boys at the White House Friday in a remarkably personal Father's Day weekend message. He implored fathers everywhere -- and the kids when they're a bit older -- to stay home and stay involved in the lives of their own children.
"This isn't an obligation," said the father of two in a message to millions of wayward dads. "Thisis a privilege to be a father." Obama spent hours on Friday with teenagers, young men,community mentors and everyday dads in hopes of launching what he called a nationalconversation on responsible fatherhood. Each story was personal. But one of them commandedthe most attention: his.
He spoke at length about how his father, Barack Obama Sr., left home early. The futurepresident was just 2 at the time and saw his dad only once more, at age 10, a short visit that stillleft a lasting imprint.
"I had a heroic mom and wonderful grandparents who helped raise me and my sister, and it'sbecause of them that I'm able to stand here today," he told a throng of youngsters. "But despiteall their extraordinary love and attention, that doesn't' mean that I didn't' feel my father'sabsence. That's something that leaves a hole in a child's heart that a government can't fill." "Justbecause your own father wasn't there for you, that's not an excuse for you to be absent also. It'sall the more reason for you to be present," Obama said at the White House. He gave the samemessage earlier at an education center for young, at-risk adults.
"You have an obligation to break the cycle and to learn from those mistakes, to rise up whereyour own fathers fell short and do better than they did," Obama said. "That's what I've tried todo with my life." An estimated 24 million American children are growing up with absent fathers,and a disproportionate number of them are African-American. Those children are at higher riskof falling into lives of poverty and crime and becoming parents themselves in their teenageyears.
The White House is trying to tackle that problem, adding to its packed domestic agenda, butwithout seeking legislation or new policies. It is sponsoring forums around the country thissummer and fall to promote programs for mentors and fathers and to see how the federalgovernment can support them.
And then there is Obama's personal attention. Only issues of special importance to a presidentget a full afternoon of his time.
Obama mingled with the youngsters on the South Lawn as they chatted with other big namesfrom entertainment and sports, ate barbecue and got some lessons about life.
Danilo Downing, a 16-year-old who just finished his sophomore year at Yorktown High Schoolin Arlington, Va., said the White House visit changed his life. He's never met his father, andconnected with the president's comments.
"I think of him as my father now," Downing said after he shook Obama's hand and got a pat onthe back. "He's really special to me. He's an amazing man." The president and his wife, Michelle,have two daughters: Sasha, 8, and Malia, 10.
"I've been far from perfect," Obama said in measuring himself as a father. "But in the end it'snot about being perfect. It's not always about succeeding. It's about always trying. And that'ssomething everybody can do. It's about showing up and sticking with it." When one boy askedwhether it was more fun being a father or being president, Obama chose fatherhood.
"Now, my kids aren't teenagers yet, so I don't know whether that will maintain itself," Obamasaid. "But right now the greatest joy I get is just hanging out with the girls and talking to them."The best moment he's had as president? A parent-teacher conference when he heard gushingcompliments about his girls.
On the South Lawn, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden circulated among the groups of teenboys. The youngsters sat in small groups with mentors ranging from celebrity chefs to militaryofficers to businessmen and politicians. The adults shared their stories of becoming men.
One of the mentors, retired basketball star Alonzo Mourning, told a group of boys: "You'll bedads one day. Help your kid develop the comfort to speak to you about anything. ... Anything."