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No room for excuses
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Barack Obama is a gifted storyteller, and he's always used his own life as a text, a parable, a lesson.
By now we can recite many of them by heart. His single mother resorting to food stamps; his grandmother losing a promotion; his grandfather serving with Gen. Patton. Who can forget the rusty car he used to drive, or the loan payments he struggled to meet?
Michelle Obama, too, relies heavily on stories to teach lessons, and speaking to graduates of Bowie State, an historically black school, she repeated a familiar narrative: "My dad was a pump operator at the city water plant, diagnosed with MS in his early 30s. And every morning I watched him struggle to get out of bed and inch his way to his walker, and painstakingly button his uniform, but never once did I hear him complain."
Those stories from both Obamas convey the same simple message: We're just like you. We share your values. We know what your lives are like. Day after day, year after year.
But when the president spoke recently at Morehouse College, another historically black school, he did something he seldom does. Instead of avoiding race, he invoked it. Instead of addressing all Americans, he spoke directly to African-Americans -- men in particular.
"There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves," he said, and the word "we" was critical. I've been there, brother, he was telling his audience. I feel your pain and your past. Now get over it.
"Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was," the president said sternly. "Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination." Stop whining. Start winning.
To reinforce his point, the president again invoked his own history. "I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there's no longer any room for excuses."
The reaction in some quarters of the black community was disheartening. A Washington Post headline read, "Obama message sounds a bit stale."
But just because a story is familiar doesn't make it "stale." Why do we tell children Bible stories, fairy tales, Greek myths? Because they contain eternal truths. Because they cannot be repeated often enough.
The president likes to focus on the value of staying at home, of being a father. He spoke wistfully of his own parentage: "I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn't know my dad." And again he drew a lesson from personal experience: "I will tell you this: Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility."
These are not "stale" stories. They are always new and always true. There's no excuse for not listening to them or living by them.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at