This article originally appeared in The Federalist, dated February 27th, 2019.
“If you are very confident about your sexuality, you don’t have to have eight women around you twerking,” former President Barack Obama said to an audience of young black men last Wednesday. “You seem stressed that you got to be acting that way, because I have one woman that I’m very happy with.”
This moment was a glimmer of the former president at his most confident and most truthful, humorously affirming the values of modesty and fidelity to one’s family while tastefully rejecting the ever-expanding progressive blanket of sexual experimentation and hookup culture.
Obama, along with NBA superstar Stephen Curry, was highlighting an event promoting Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential,” according to its website.
The former president’s town hall addressed a wide range of social issues, including black success, family, and manhood, and many of his conclusions were temperamentally conservative.
“The odds of any young man, unless you look like Zion Williamson, to be in the NBA, are very low,” Obama said at one point. “The odds of being a doctor or a lawyer? Much higher.” Kudos to the former president for encouraging young black men to choose sustainable professions with demonstrated economic viability over pipe dreams about being rappers, sports stars, and activists.
Obama went from pop culture to economics into the topic about which he was clearly most passionate: the importance of male mentorship. He spoke about his own difficulties living in a household without a father, and how his community stepped up and became like a “surrogate father” to him. He exhorted the people in the audience to fill these father-like mentorship roles, “to truly care” about one another. He invited Curry to give a testimony about the impact his father made on his life.
The speech was hardly perfect. The former president left much to be desired in addressing the importance of the biggest male mentor in a boy’s entire life, his father. No matter how much mentorship a boy may gain from his community, it is simply naïve to suggest that these practices can fully fill the role as well as a loving, present father in the home can.
Obama is well-positioned to talk about why children without fathers are at a four-fold greater risk of poverty, seven times more likely to become pregnant as a teen, and twice as likely to drop out of high school than children with fathers. He had the golden opportunity to make the case for fatherhood to his audience. But he opted to play it safe, perhaps sensing anger from the left had he directly addressed the crisis of fatherhood as he has in the past (to mixed results).
Obama also slipped in a few giveaway lines to placate the progressives in the crowd, including an opening tribute to Trayvon Martin that ultimately had little to do with the rest of his talk, and a halfhearted attempt to recycle intersectional victimhood politics (“young women are carrying a double burden because oftentimes they’re dealing with sexism along with racism”).
But these lines seemed out of place with the thrust of his speech, which largely focused on the fundamentally conservative ideas of personal growth, family accountability, and local, gradual change.
This version of Obama suggests sweeping executive action at the federal level is not the best way to solve our nation’s deepest-rooted problems. At one point, when questioned by a high schooler about mass incarceration of black Americans, Obama sympathized, but also acknowledged that great change takes time, and that agitating about national redress is less important than convincing one’s local community to address these issues first.
“Most change happens on the local level,” he said. “You have to know who is in charge of your community… if you don’t like [your state attorney], vote them out.” Thankfully, no mention was made of a pie-in-the-sky Green New Deal, inflammatory reparations theory, or a sweeping, disruptive government program aimed at racial discrimination. In today’s radical age, this sense of federalism and localism from a Democrat is a relief.
For once, we got a taste not of Obama the progressive politician whose presidency greatly expanded the powers of the federal government, but Obama the former community organizer and Chicago civic stalwart. It is a fundamentally conservative temperament to care about people in a specific and personal sense, rather than as taxpaying objects of a big progressive program. The restrained, family-oriented, and mentoring Obama is a part of him we can all respect.