President Barack Obama delivered a poignant and candid speech on the importance of fatherhood and personal responsibility before a group made up largely of young males and representatives of community mentoring organizations who attended a town hall meeting in the East Room of the White House on Friday.
The president and members of his staff spent much of the afternoon visiting youth-focused, nonprofit organizations in metropolitan D.C. before returning to the White House for the town hall meeting and a barbeque on the South Lawn.
Fatherhood is an intensely personal issue for Obama who met with his own father just once after Obama pere left home when the future president was two.
“I had a heroic mom and wonderful grandparents who helped raise me and my sister, and it’s because of them that I’m able to stand here today,” he said. “But despite all their extraordinary love and attention, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel my father’s absence. That’s something that leaves a hole in a child’s heart that a government can’t fill.” Still, he credited his father with instilling in him his passion for basketball and jazz during that short visit, noting that, “small moments and gestures can make a huge difference.”
But Obama also told the audience that he’d vowed not to repeat his father’s mistakes.
“Just because your own father wasn’t there for you, that’s not an excuse for you to be absent also. It’s all the more reason for you to be present,” he said. “You have an obligation to break the cycle and to learn from those mistakes, and to rise up where your own fathers fell short and to do better than they did with your own children. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my life.”
Fatherhood, Obama added, is his greatest joy and when asked by one boy whether being a father or the president is more fun, he chose fatherhood, with the caveat that that might change once his girls become teenagers. The president also said that he has made his own share of mistakes as a father, but the important thing is “showing up and sticking to it.”
Jelani Chestnut, 19, who plans to pursue a degree in marine biology at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, this fall, also grew up in a fatherless home and met his dad just once. But thanks to the support of a loving extended family, not going to college was never an option and he feels bound for success.
Jelani has spent this year mentoring boys aged 13 to 16 at the D.C.-based organization Life Pieces to Masterpieces. Witnessing the president speak about shared experiences, he said, inspired him to show those kids how much he cares.
Obama said that Friday’s event was the launch of what he hopes will be a national dialogue on the importance of responsible fatherhood. The White House plans to hold a series of regional town hall forums, beginning in July, to discuss the issue.