President Obama delivered a spirited, and at times politically charged, stump speech for working families today, drawing on his own experience as a father of two teenage daughters to call for greater flexibility in the workplace.
“I am lucky that my daughters were a bit older by the time I became president, so I never had to meet a world leader with Cheerios stuck to my pants. That has not happened,” Obama joked in his address at the White House Summit on Working Families.
“I’m also lucky because we live above the store, so to speak. I have a very short commute,” he added. “And as a consequence, we’ve been able to organize ourselves to have dinner with Michelle and the girls almost every night.”
“But before I moved into the White House, I was away a lot, sometimes with work, sometimes with campaigning. Michelle was working full time and was at home with the responsibility, all too often, of dealing with everything that the girls needed,” he said. “We understand how lucky we are now, because there was a big chunk of time when we were doing what so many of you have to deal with every day, and that is, figuring out how do we make this whole thing work.”
Obama praised companies that offer employees the flexibility to work from home, or leave work early to tend to a sick child, or take an afternoon off to see their children in a school play or a sports game. He also praised businesses that support generous family medical leave and maternity leave programs and child care. The president said he regrets that not all American workers enjoy those benefits.
“Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage — these are not frills; they are basic needs,” he said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses; they should be part of our bottom line as a society.”
The White House summit was convened to highlight “best practices” in the business community and encourage more employers to grant greater flexibility to workers who are parents, officials said. Among the companies participating were JetBlue, Ernst and Young, Gap and the Shake Shack restaurant chain.
In his keynote address, President Obama repeatedly invoked his relationship with daughters Sasha and Malia to underscore his personal understanding of the balancing act that is parenting.
“I remember taking the night shift when Malia was born and when Sasha was born, and being up at 2:00 in the morning and changing diapers and burping them and singing to them and reading them stories, and watching Sports Center once in a while, which I thought was good for their development. It was. We want them to be well-rounded,” Obama said.
“But the point is, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off so that I was there for the 2 a.m. feeding and the soothing and just getting to know them and making sure they knew me. And that bond is irreplaceable. And I want every father and every child to have that opportunity,” he said. “But that requires a society that makes it easier for us to give folks that opportunity.”
The president denied that the event served a political agenda, saying the issues were “personal” for him, as the son of a single mom who balanced job, school and raising a child at the same time.
“Most of all, I take it personally because I am the father of two unbelievable young ladies. And I want them to be able to have families, and I want them to be able to have careers, and I want them to go as far as their dreams will take them. And I want a society that supports that,” he said.
Before attending the summit, Obama made an unannounced visit to burrito chain Chipotle for lunch — which he called “Chipotle’s.”
“It had been awhile since I had the burrito bowl, and it was — it was good,” he told the crowd afterward. “I went there with four new buddies of mine.”
Obama dined with four parents of young children who have developed flexible work plans with their employers to better balance their professional and family lives.
“Now, each of these folks come from different parts of the country. They have different occupations, different income levels. And yet what bound all of us together was a recognition that work gives us a sense of place and dignity as well as income, and it is critically important, but family is also the bedrock of our lives,” he said.