Responsibility. For All.
Jonathan Martin at Politico considers Obama’s speech on fatherhood “includes some remarkable language about absentee dads that only he could deliver.”
But I don’t believe it’s true that only one person could give such a speech.
Yes, he’s eloquent. And yes, he’s African-American. But there’s some critical substance that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Consider that when Bill Cosby delivered a similar speech, he suffered far more criticism from other African-Americans than Obama did. Why is that?
In the great Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic article on Cosby, Coates notes that Cosby’s lectures are part of “the ‘organic’ black conservative tradition: conservatives who favor hard work and moral reform over protests and government intervention, but whose black-nationalist leanings make them anathema to the Heritage Foundation and Rush Limbaugh.”
Whereas Obama’s speech coupled personal responsibility with shared responsibility.
Dana Goldstein of Tapped observed that Obama’s speech “avoided falling into conservative tropes by admitting that while two-parent households are one solution to the challenges facing poor children, social services are necessary as well,” citing the following passage from the prepared text:
We should be making it easier for fathers who make responsible choices and harder for those who avoid them.
We should get rid of the financial penalties we impose on married couples right now, and start making sure that every dime of child support goes directly to helping children instead of some bureaucrat. We should reward fathers who pay that child support with job training and job opportunities and a larger Earned Income Tax Credit that can help them pay the bills.
We should expand programs where registered nurses visit expectant and new mothers and help them learn how to care for themselves before the baby is born and what to do after - programs that have helped increase father involvement, women’s employment, and children’s readiness for school.
We should help these new families care for their children by expanding maternity and paternity leave, and we should guarantee every worker more paid sick leave so they can stay home to take care of their child without losing their income.
And it’s not just that Obama made such a linkage in a single speech, but the themes of personal responsibility and shared responsibility have been woven throughout the campaign.
He has established credibility as a leader who is willing to invest our government’s resources for the common good, with the understanding that our government can’t effectively step up to solve problems if we as a people don’t step up in response.
Therefore, his exhortations cannot be easily rejected as cold, callous finger-pointing, but more easily embraced as tough love, since it is backed up with substantive compassion.
You don’t have to be a great speaker to make the connection between personal responsibility and shared responsibility.
Though of course, it doesn’t hurt.