President Obama addressed an attentive audience at a community center in Southeast Washington this week and called once again for a “new conversation about fatherhood.”   He also took the occasion to announce a nationwide Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, which will be complemented by a $500 million Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund.  The Fund will make grants to nonprofits across the country for a variety of purposes that the President outlined as including “jobs training, or parenting skills classes, [or] domestic violence prevention.”

The President was at his most eloquent – and clearly most engaged – when he reminisced about the drive home from the hospital with wife Michelle and their newborn Malia (“going about 10 miles per hour”).  He mentioned the fact that his own father abandoned the family when Barack was two years old.  He vowed, he said, that, “If I could be anything in life, I would be a good father.”  He went on to say, “The most challenging, the most fulfilling, the most important job I will have during my time on this Earth is to be Sasha and Malia’s dad.”

Fortunately, the President’s public remarks did not repeat the language in his printed proclamation for Father’s Day 2010, where he celebrated an array of family “forms” that included “two fathers” and even a “caring guardian.” The most significant omission from the proclamation, however, is the one that also gets short shrift in the President’s Families Innovation Fund – a focus on marriage.  The Innovation Fund replaces a Bush Administration program called the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which committed $100 million per year to programs designed to encourage marriage in communities where the institution is culturally weak or nearly non-existent.  Instead, the Innovation Fund will throw $500 million into grants for job training, child support enforcement case management, and domestic violence prevention.  Marriage promotion is reduced to merely a component of the initiative.

As if to underscore the shift in emphasis, the Fund will be managed from the Child Support Enforcement branch of the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families, rather than the Office of Family Assistance, where the marriage program had been housed.  The Fund’s presumption is continued father absence, its focus is programming of doubtful efficacy, and its outcome measurements make no mention of trying to increase marriage rates.  But a dollar bill cannot tuck a child in at night and a child support check cannot make sure a daughter’s homework is done.  Real fathering is priceless.

The widening marriage gap in U.S. society is tracking gaps in education and income and helping to make them permanent. Everything in the extraordinary arc of the Obama family, from the President’s yearning for the father he barely knew to the Obamas becoming the nation’s First Family, reflects the social reality that marriage is a gateway to personal happiness and success.  Unfortunately, the President’s proposed budget obscures that truth.  When it comes to fatherhood, following his example, and not his policies, is the wiser course.