WASHINGTON — Barack Obama got a basketball, his name and ambition from his father. Little else.
The son gave back more than he received: ruminations about the man who abandoned the family, a memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” and reflections on his own successes and shortcomings as a parent of Sasha, 8, and Malia, 10.
As a candidate and now president, he’s been telling men what sort of fathers they should be. It’s become his Father’s Day ritual. He’s asking American men to be better fathers than his own.
The president showcased fatherhood in a series of events and a magazine article in advance of Father’s Day. He said he came to understand the importance of fatherhood from its absence in his childhood home — just as an estimated 24 million Americans are now growing up without a dad.
Fathers run as deep in the political culture as they do everywhere else, for better or worse. Michelle Obama has spoken of her late dad, Fraser, as her reference point and rock — she checks in with him, in her mind, routinely, and at important moments.
Obama’s presidential rival, John McCain, called his own memoir “Faith of My Fathers,” tracing generations of high-achieving scamps. The father-son presidencies of the George Bushes were bookends on Bill Clinton, whose father drowned in a ditch before the future president was born and whose stepfather was an abusive alcoholic nicknamed Dude.
A Kenyan goat-herder-turned-intellectual who clawed his way to scholarships and Harvard, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. left a family behind to get his schooling in the U.S. He started another family here, then left his second wife and 2-year-old Barack Jr. to return to Africa with another woman.
His promise flamed out in Africa after stints working for an oil company and the government; he fell into drink and died in a car crash when his son was 21.
“I don’t want to be the kind of father I had,” Obama is quoted as telling a friend in a new book.
And in an interview last Friday with CBS News, Obama said: “It was only later in life that I found out that he actually led a very tragic life. And in that sense, it was the myth that I was chasing as opposed to knowing who he really was.”
His half-sister, Maya, called his memoirs “part of the process of excavating his father.”
Obama now cajoles men to be better fathers. His finger-wagging is most pointed when addressing other black men, reflecting years of worry about the fabric of black families, but it applies to everyone.
Father’s Day 2007: “Let’s admit to ourselves that there are a lot of men out there that need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise a child.”
Father’s Day 2008: “Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”
Father’s Day 2009: “We need to step out of our own heads and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what’s going on in their lives.”
He doesn’t consider himself the ideal dad.
“I know I have been an imperfect father,” he wrote in Sunday’s Parade magazine. “I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood.”
His years as a community organizer, Illinois lawmaker, U.S. senator and presidential candidate often kept him apart from family. At the same time, he went to great lengths in the 2008 campaign to find time with his girls and wife, and now considers family time one of the joys of living and working in the White House.
The new book “Renegade” by Richard Wolffe recounts strains in the marriage early this decade, arising from his absences and from what Michelle Obama apparently considered his selfish careerism at the time. The author interviewed the Obamas, friends and associates.
Obama himself attributed his “fierce ambitions” to his dad while crediting his mother — a loving but frequently absent figure — with giving him the means to pursue them.
“Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” he once wrote, “and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.”
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.