The power of parents

But while that speech is most often remembered for its soaring climax — a passionate call for erasing the partisan divisions that had come to define business-as-usual in Washington — there was less written about a passage that identified a quiet crisis neither endemic to, nor solvable by, politicians within the Beltway.

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“[P]arents have to teach,” said Obama. “[C]hildren can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets … ”

It was a call for parental involvement that the Illinois senator repeated often on the presidential campaign trail, most memorably during a 2008 Father’s Day speech. Obama spoke about the meaning of fatherhood, and the impact of parenting on child development.

“[I]f we want to set high expectations for them, we’ve got to set high expectations for ourselves,” said Obama. “It’s a wonderful thing if you are married and living in a home with your children, but don’t just sit in the house and watch ‘SportsCenter’ all weekend long.

That’s why so many children are growing up in front of the television. As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.”

For the president, this issue is personal. His father having left when he was 2 years old, Obama recognized the void that was left in his own life. Thanks to a heroic mother and dedicated grandparents, he learned the value of education. Through hard work and by seizing the opportunities afforded to him, President Obama saw his own life transformed.

That was the message the president delivered in his back-to-school address to the nation’s schoolchildren last month — a speech pre-emptively attacked by right-wing critics as “indoctrination.”

But to average American parents, and, just as important, their kids, the president’s speech represented something far more meaningful than the silliness at the center of 24-hour cable news chatter.

Last week, my sister told me her 8-year-old daughter was electing to participate in her school’s optional science fair. While my sister hasn’t been closely following the Washington debate over hot-button issues like the public health insurance option or immigration reform, she was able to cite the president’s education address from memory to my niece.

“Remember when President Obama said that learning science could help us find a cure for cancer?” she asked her daughter.

My niece’s eyes grew wide with recognition. “Mom, I could be the one who does that.”
I suspect that my sister isn’t alone. The president’s speech represents an entirely different conversation than the one taking place inside the Beltway — a dialogue aimed squarely at the millions of Americans who are looking to their elected leaders for something bigger.

Not content simply to inspire young minds, President Obama infused his words with the urgency that this moment demands.

“[E]ven when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged and you feel like other people have given up on you — don’t ever give up on yourself,” Obama said. “Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country. The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.”

It wasn’t pie-in-the-sky advice. A few weeks after that speech, scientists announced that an experimental vaccine had shown extraordinary promise in preventing infection with the AIDS virus. The Associated Press reported that the discovery was “a watershed event in the deadly epidemic and a surprising result. Recent failures led many scientists to think such a vaccine might never be possible.”

As the discussion over healthcare, energy policy and regulatory reform continue to grab headlines and stir tensions among partisan voices seeking out the extremes in our national debate, it’s important to remember that an American president’s power isn’t limited to his ability to move legislation.

It’s also about moving the American people — and their children — to take responsibility for their own destiny.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.