Obama’s Fathers Day Op-Ed Ignores Causes of Father Absence

On Fathers Day, President Obama launched his initiative called Strong Fathers, Strong Families.  If anyone can figure out what it is, by all means let me know.  As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it looks like a year-long exhortation to fathers to be better than they’ve been in the past.  If there’s more to it, I’d love to know.

But what I do know is what the president wrote in his pre-Fathers Day article in, yes, People Magazine here (People, 6/8/11).

Reading the piece, it’s hard not to hear the president’s sincerity.  He really believes that fathers should be involved in their children’s lives.  After all, his father wasn’t, so he knows how that feels.

What I also know is that President Obama is a smart man.  He’s well-educated and knowledgeable.  So it’s more than disconcerting to realize that he took to the national press to talk about the value of fathers to children, about which he knows a lot, but said nothing about how that comes about.  Indeed, by opening his article with his own experience of a father who left his family, the president strongly suggests that paternal irresponsibility is the only thing keeping fathers and children apart.

It’s true of course that some fathers don’t want much or anything to do with their kids.  In a nation of 300 million people, you’d expect to find some of those dads.  Of course you’d also expect to find mothers who are irresponsible, violent, neglectful, etc., and sure enough you do.  The Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services reports almost a million incidents of child abuse and neglect every year and every year right at 40% of them are committed by mothers acting alone.

So, in his concern for children, President Obama could have mentioned those mothers, but he didn’t.  He also didn’t mention the many ways in which state and federal laws do the exact opposite of what he knows to be best for children.  Those laws frankly keep fathers out of children’s lives and do so in an astonishing variety of ways, all of which I’ve written about before.  From Adoption to child Support to Custody to Paternity Fraud, Visitation and more, there’s a whole alphabet soup of laws and practices that have one thing in common – their tendency to separate fathers from their children.

They do so based on one simple assumption that the president makes as well – that fathers are either dangerous to or uninterested in their children.  The fact that much social science shows that to be false seems to matter not at all.  Fine long-term studies like the Fragile Families and Child Well-being study that’s been going on at Princeton under the direction of Sarah McLanahan show clearly that even those fathers we’d expect to fit the stereotype of the uninterested dad in fact passionately desire an active role in their children’s upbringing.  

You’d think the President of the United States would know such things and my guess is that he does.  After all, who has more resources at his fingertips than the man in the Oval Office?  So that must mean that he’s aware of the many obstacles dads face when they try to remain actively involved with their children, but chooses not to mention them. 

Far worse, he chooses not to attempt to do anything about them.  Oh, I understand that family law is, for the most part, a state matter and therefore beyond the president’s purview.  But much, like child support enforcement and domestic violence law have roots in federal law and policy; they are therefore within Obama’s power to directly influence.  But he doesn’t.

He could also use the Oval Office as a “bully pulpit” from which to hector states to do the right thing by dads.  But he doesn’t do that either.

I also understand that those holding public office are always running for reelection.  They therefore choose their words as best they can for maximum electoral effect.  So Obama’s piece appeared in a magazine that’s read by far more women than men and his message was conducive to mothers’ sense of their own self-worth: “Mothers, you bear no fault; it’s the dads who need to change.”

You wouldn’t expect to find him excoriating mothers for maternal gatekeeping, denial of visitation, false claims of abuse or paternity fraud in the pages of People

Come to think of it, pretty much the same could be said of Vice-President Biden’s disgraceful interview with Glamour Magazine about domestic violence.  He opted to avoid the truth too.  His brief – that only men commit DV and only women are victims – was preaching to the choir.  Why would he tell the truth about women’s commission of domestic violence to an audience of women?

Well, one reason would be because it’s the truth and the truth has a way of mattering irrespective of the context.  But speaking the truth about such things takes courage and those looking for that attribute among elected officials usually look in vain.

And since elected officials can’t be counted on to do the right thing, because they can be counted on to do what they perceive as in their best interests, we in the movement for family court reform and fathers’ rights need to make doing the right thing in  politicians’ best interests.  To be blunt, we need to make our electoral decisions based on each candidate’s stance on family court reform and nothing else.

Being right on family court reform needs to go to the head of the list of attributes a candidate must possess in order to get our votes.  If he/she is, then we should vote for the person; if not then regardless of his/her other qualities, then he/she doesn’t get our vote.

And we should let them know why we voted for or against them.  They can’t get with our program if they don’t know the consequences of not doing so.

We should do more than vote.  We should make ourselves indispensable to campaigns whose candidates are right on family court reform issues.  We should give money and put our boots on the ground for candidates who are right and against those who are wrong.  That means block-walking, phone-banking, home meet-and-greets and the thousand other things that make for effective electoral politics.

The movement for family court reform and fathers’ rights has been on the right side of justice, fairness and science from the start.  But exhortations to political officials to do the right thing have limited effect.  Put simply, until they’re scared of what we can do at the ballot box, we’ll continue to read arrant nonsense courtesy of presidents and vice-presidents.  And once they’ve gotten the message that we have electoral power and mean business, all that will change.

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