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.”