Published Online: April 11, 2008

Obama Uses High Schools to Push Parenting Message

The standard Barack Obama venue lately has been high schools. Truman High School, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Jefferson High School.

The Democratic presidential candidate has been pitching an audience-pleasing message of economic populism to crowds of a few thousand packed into each gymnasium. But he gets some of his loudest applause when he segues to education — and a bit of a lecture to mothers and fathers on how to be parents.

Sure, there is the usual critique of current government policies. But the cheering peaks with a dose of tough talk.

"Parents if you don't parent, we can't improve our schools," he said. "You've got to parent. You've got to turn off the television set in your house once in a while, you've got to put the video game away once in a while."

Obama, who aspires to be the first black president, dwells a little longer on the subject with predominantly black audiences, as he did Thursday in this economically struggling city in the south shore of Lake Michigan.

"You should have a curfew in your house so your children aren't out in the streets all night. You should meet with the teacher and find out what the homework is and help that child with the homework. And if you don't know how to do the homework, don't be embarrassed, find someone to help you."

"Fathers, be fathers," he added. "Be a part of your child's life. Be a part of your child's life and try to make them proud.

"And the last thing is, if your child is misbehaving at school don't curse out the teacher. You know who you are. It's not the teacher's fault that your child is misbehaving. That's some home training."

The crowd reacted raucously and Obama laughed. "You know what I say is true, though. Don't blame the teachers, and the government and the schools if you're not doing your job."

That assessment of responsibility is a variation of a sentiment he expressed last month in his speech on race in Philadelphia.

Obama's self-help message has a broader political appeal, blending a socially conservative solution with his more liberal view that government can and should do more to improve the lot of Americans. And the appeal to fathers is rooted in his own experience, a doting father himself who was raised by his mother and a grandmother after his father left the family when he was 2.

For Obama — and for voters — his race has a double edge. In the speech on race on March 18, he noted that he has been variously deemed "too black" or "not black enough." In primary after primary, he wins the vast share of the black vote. Yet his race also represents a transitional, even historic, moment for the country and the presidential contest so far proves he has defied simple racial pigeonholing.

So while Obama may be the politician with the best credentials to speak candidly and admonish the black community, he also has worked vigorously to present himself as the presidential candidate who happens to be black rather than the black candidate.

Obama can display a comfortable ease with an audience and can riff off a crowd, no matter the skin hue. But these freelance exchanges are all the more noticeable when he is speaking to blacks — and he gets away with stereotypes that might cause offense coming from another candidate.

He'll make reference to "cousin Pookie" — a fictional layabout whom he urges supporters to "get off the couch."

Asked Thursday by a student in Gary to discuss the shrinking value of the dollar, Obama said it was a symptom of a trade imbalance and a burgeoning debt.

"We've been borrowing money like nobody's business from China," he said. "We're like that cousin who always comes and never seems to have a job. He's out there buying new rims on his car, but can't pay the rent."

In white suburban schools in Pennsylvania and Indiana, he offers sobering words for college-bound students, whom he says on the one hand want affordable education but also expect colleges to provide a high quality of life.

"You're going to have to be better consumers of higher education," he told one student in Malvern, Pa., who said she faced a $45,000 a year tuition. "When I was going to school, we knew the food was going to be bad. The gym didn't have all the state of the art Nautilus equipment."

In Lafayette, Ind., Thursday evening, he expanded, sounding much like a parent at the dinner table.

"There are kids in China and India who are learning an awful lot of math and an awful lot of science with facilities that are a lot worse than the ones we have," he said. "And we have to keep that in mind when we're shopping for schools and encouraging school administrators to cut out the frills."

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