President Barack Obama shakes hands with the audience after speaking at Hyde Park Academy, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) ORG XMIT: ILMG103
Updated: March 18, 2013 6:47AM
This is whom we saw at Hyde Park Academy on Friday afternoon:
Mothers and fathers, teachers and social workers, police officers and ministers, politicians and community leaders, doctors and business owners, affordable-housing specialists and public school principals, psychologists and coaches and many smiling young people.
And a president.
The rap on President Barack Obama is that he believes government is always the solution, but that was hardly the message he sent at Hyde Park Academy when he spoke about the constant urban violence that is killing our young people.
On the contrary, Obama said little about new gun laws and government programs. He spoke more about how important it is to be a man, a parent and a real community.
Government can help fill in the “gaps,” the president said. It can, for example, support the creation of quality preschool programs. It can give tax breaks to businesses that locate in the most depressed neighborhoods. It can increase the minimum wage.
But government can’t raise our kids.
“No law or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence in this country,” Obama said. “When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.”
That was the “it takes a village” part of Obama’s speech. More pointed, and less often said by liberals for fear of offending anybody, was the president’s insistence that strong families matter above all, that two parents — straight or gay — are better than one, that marriage should be encouraged, and that men should act like men.
With all respect to the many “heroic” single mothers in his audience, Obama said, “I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”
Perhaps the president was thinking back on his own childhood as well when he said, “What makes you a man is not the ability to make a child; it’s the courage to raise one.”
During his first term in office, Obama was wary of wading into the muddy waters of social dysfunction. He was determined to keep his sights on broad national issues, such as the economy and health care. But that choice came at a price. If ever there was a president who could inspire young people in hard places, especially African-American young men, to rethink their lives, it is Obama.
“I hope he gets through to some of the kids,” Marquita Ambrose, a junior at Hyde Park, told us. “The black community really looks up to President Obama... He can let them know a life being taken away is just not worth it.”
Before the speech, Obama met with a group of 15 or so male students who participate in a program called “Becoming a Man.” They work on such issues as self-determination, accountability and respect for women.
The president talked with them about what it takes to change one’s life and about how he screwed up as a young man, too.
The young men were listening.
“Growing up on the South Side, it’s rough trying to stay out of the bad crowd,” sophomore Derek Austin later told us. “Obama really got to me — as a black man. He really touched me and made me want to do better for myself and encourage others to want to do better.”
Obama is right: Government matters. The nation needs greater gun control. The nation needs more quality preschools.
But the greatest change, we could not help but think as Obama talked with the young men, comes from the ground up.
That’s everybody’s job.