Obama’s legacy could be moral rather than political
Barack Obama had high hopes for his second term. In his lofty second inaugural address, he celebrated the virtues of activist government and pledged to redouble his efforts to fight climate change, among other causes dear to American liberals. Yet there is a growing perception that the president’s agenda has stalled. Congressional leaders continue to work toward comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but the Obama administration has mostly taken a hands-off approach. The president devoted several weeks to making the case for more stringent gun regulation, to no avail. Obama’s speech this week recasting the war on terror and drone policy may have been ambitious, but the goals remain thorny and controversial and therefore unlikely to define his presidency. And though he has continued to make the case for substantial tax increases on upper-income Americans, the House GOP remains staunchly opposed. Indeed, conservative anger over Benghazi and IRS targeting of conservative groups has led many Republicans to believe that the president is on the ropes and that they ought to press every advantage.
This raises the question of what kind of legacy President Obama will have. Even if Obama accomplishes nothing between now and the end of his second term, he will have been one of the most consequential presidents in modern American history, for better or for worse. During the 111th Congress, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed an unprecedented fiscal stimulus law; the Affordable Care Act; a sweeping student loan overhaul; and the biggest new round of financial regulations since the Great Depression. The president’s re-election victory made it far more likely that these legislative initiatives will endure, even in the face of determined Republican opposition.
But there is something unsatisfying about playing defense, and one imagines that the president, an ambitious and competitive man, longs to do more. One possibility, hinted at in a recent speech, is that Obama might take advantage of his prestige and moral authority to make the case for stronger American families. This need not entail any new legislation, though the president’s conservative critics might welcome that. Rather, it will require a series of firm and consistent moral arguments about what parents, and particularly fathers, owe to their children.
As a general rule, the politicians who’ve been most passionate about the cause of strengthening marriage have come from the right side of the political spectrum, where being a moralistic scold is no crime. Two Republican presidential candidates from last year – Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ‑ are classic examples. The trouble is that for all their good intentions, Santorum and Romney are, to put it mildly, culturally removed from the Americans most directly affected by the transformation of American family life. Romney’s family in particular read like a caricature of 1950s wholesomeness, and his own upbringing as the son of an auto industry executive and governor was not exactly relatable.
The same can’t be said of Barack Obama, who, like 33 percent of American children today, was raised by a single parent. During a moving commencement address on May 19 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the country’s most renowned historically black educational institutions, Obama briefly recalled his experiences as the son of a single mother. Having praised his mother and his grandparents for the sacrifices they had made on his behalf, he said, “I sure wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved.” And so, he explained, he endeavored to be the kind of father he wished he had as a youth, and “to break that cycle where a father is not at home.”
In “Wayward Sons,” a new report from the center-left think tank Third Way, the economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman suggest a number of ways in which changing family structure might influence economic and social inequalities. And in the course of doing so, they offer striking statistics on the transformation of African American family life.
From 1970 to 2010, for example, the share of black men with less than a high school diploma who were married fell from 69 percent to 17 percent. This is in part a reflection of the ravages of mass incarceration, as ex-offenders tend to have lower earnings once they leave prison. While fewer than 5 percent of black men ages 25 to 39 with less than a high school diploma were incarcerated in 1970, the number had increased to 26 percent four decades later. At the same time, the lives of black men and black women have been diverging along many dimensions. Among African American women with a high school education, 65 percent lived with biological children in 2010, a modest decline from 75 percent in 1970. Yet among black men with the same level of educational attainment, the share living with biological children had fallen from 65 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 2010. Some fathers who choose not to live with their biological children undoubtedly make contributions, material or otherwise, to the families they’ve left behind. But their absence, as the president suggested in his Morehouse address, is keenly felt.
Autor and Wasserman demonstrate that changing family structure is far from an exclusively black phenomenon. As of 2010, 75 percent of children under 18 raised by black mothers who hadn’t completed high school lived in households in which their mother was the only adult, but the same was true of 45 percent of white mothers with the same level of educational attainment. This wouldn’t be a problem if outcomes for children raised by single mothers were identical to those for children raised in stable marriages. As Autor and Wasserman tentatively observe, however, there is reason to believe that while the female children of single mothers fare relatively well, the male children do not. And many of them grow up to become absent fathers. Having spent much of his adult life in Chicago’s South Side, the president is very familiar with this landscape.
One might argue that it is unfair or unreasonable to expect Obama to take up the role of moralizer-in-chief, and that may well be true. But he happens to be well suited to the role, and not just because of his by-all-accounts exemplary family life. While Santorum and Romney are seen as religiously devout, Obama is widely regarded as a more secular figure, and so his paeans to responsible fatherhood can’t be dismissed as somehow narrow or exclusive. Moreover, the president has been far more inclined to use moralistic language when addressing black audiences than non-black audiences. The implicit suggestion is that as one of the country’s most celebrated African Americans, he feels a special connection to the black community that allows him to make special claims. And there is something to this line of thinking.
In late May of last year, two weeks after the president announced his support for civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, a Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 59 percent of black Americans felt the same way, a dramatic increase of 18 percentage points when compared to a survey taken shortly before the president’s announcement. Many things could have changed the minds of African Americans on same-sex unions over a two-week period, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that many blacks hold the president in sufficiently high esteem that they are at least willing to give him a hearing. While the words of Santorum and Romney and various fire-and-brimstone evangelicals might fall on deaf ears, Obama is seen as a different kind of figure, one who is sincerely invested in African American uplift.
If Obama commits to making responsible fatherhood a central theme of his second term, he could have a deep and durable effect on American culture. Any legislative achievement would pale in comparison.