Who Will Speak Out for American Families?


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Published June 27, 2014.
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This summer has already given us its fair share of sensational news — from the attempted takeover of Iraq by jihadi militants to Eric Cantor’s downfall to the thrill of victory and agony of defeat at the World Cup in Brazil. And July has only just started.

With all this drama, the smaller stories get missed — even if it’s the president who is producing them.

On June 23, President Obama held what was billed as a White House summit on working families to highlight the work-life challenges facing parents today. The administration tried its best to grab some attention for issues like parental leave, affordable childcare, workplace flexibility and a decent minimum wage. The president even wrote a blog post for The Huffington Post.

But besides a few stories that led with Obama’s description of himself as a dishwasher but not a laundry folder, the substance of the day was lost.

Even worse, to the extent that the summit elicited any commentary it was of the cynical variety. In these accounts, it was clearly just a PR stunt by an adminitration desperate for women voters in the lead-up to the midterm elections.

It’s sad that these issues — which arguably are most at the center of Americans’ lives — can’t grab the spotlight for even a day. A planned media event, understandably dismissed as just a matter of “optics” for the president, still poses as serious problems the way we live and work in this country.

It matters when you have an American president himself decrying — as he did in the Huffington Post — that “the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.” At the very least it starts a necessary conversation to which reluctant lawmakers in Congress might be forced to listen.

As for the substance of this summit, the administration put a paltry number of things on the table: a presidential memorandum providing more flexible schedules for federal workers, a proposal for a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and $25 million toward job-training programs.

It’s really not much. But movement on any real policy — especially, finally, parental leave — will always be stymied unless there is political will and public pressure beyond the confines of the Oval Office.

With his hands tied by Congress, what Obama can and did try to do is put these issues front and center, and that’s to be lauded. Because there will never be a perfect time to address these problems — no crises moment when they will be shoved in our face like gun control after the Newtown massacre. They are deep cracks and fissures in our everyday lives. But they should never be ignored. The first step is to talk about them.

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