President Obama missed a huge opportunity Thursday. In fact, he has missed a huge opportunity for five years.
At a White House event with big fanfare, he announced the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative in which foundations already spending $150 million to help, in his words, "the average black or brown child in this country," will spend another $200 million over the next five years to test which strategies are working and expand them.
"The stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country," Obama said, "[lag] behind by almost every measure, and [are] worse for boys and young men."
He's right in some ways, but he didn't take the opportunity to use his bully pulpit to lead -- to explain why marriage is important before fatherhood, to clarify why fatherhood is more than donating sperm, to explain what guns are doing to the people he wants to help (19 shootings so far in Chattanooga this year, many involving black youth in urban neighborhoods), and to detail what happens when you use and deal drugs.
Those are issues Obama could have begun to address in soaring terms at his inauguration in 2009, to have addressed at every possible opportunity since, and to work on ceaselessly with the foundations he mentioned Thursday.
Imagine where the country might be today if those already tested strategies were the ones on which he hung his hat. That could have been real hope and change.
But back to Thursday.
Obama did say "we've got to continue to encourage responsible fatherhood," "we can't replace the power of a parent who's reading to [a] child," "nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son's life" and "it's ultimately going to be up to these young men and all the young men who are out there to step up and seize responsibility for their own lives."
That's where he could have bored in, calling on special guests to talk about marriage, responsible fatherhood and the opportunity provided by work and a drug-free life.
Instead, the personal responsibility line came toward the end of the speech and after he said "we" have to guarantee every child has "access to a world-class education," we have to create more jobs and empower "more workers with the skills they need," we have to make sure "hard work pays off with wages you can live on and savings you can retire on and health care that you can count on," we have "to give more of these young men access to mentors," we have "to provide more pathways to apply to college or find a job" and we have to build "more ladders ... to the middle class."
And further, the president, in discussing how "students of color are far more likely than their white classmates to find themselves in trouble with the law," said we have to make "sure our criminal justice system doesn't just function as a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails."
(As an aside, part of the way Obama suggested to stop that pipeline was to find alternatives to the zero-tolerance guidelines in schools and implement "ways to modify bad behavior that lead to good behavior -- as opposed to bad behavior out of school." That idea, alone, should be interesting to track.)
Given our marching orders, "we" certainly have a lot to do for these children.
But the president also has a part to play. You wouldn't have expected him to say his administration's policies have made the climb steeper for the children he wants to help, and he didn't. But they have.
A record 47 million Americans receive food stamps, 13 million more than when he took office. The poverty rate has stood at 15 percent for three years, the first time that happened since the mid-1960s. And poverty overall has declined only slightly from 1965, when it was 17.3 percent. Yet, federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964.
So, even with all the rhetoric about helping "students of color" (Obama's words) -- and our hope is they'll use some of those already tested strategies -- the line in which he said "My Brother's Keeper" was not a government program should have gotten the most applause of the speech.