President Obama donned his father-in-chief hat Friday, devoting much of his afternoon to emphasizing the importance of mentors and father...

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WASHINGTON — President Obama donned his father-in-chief hat Friday, devoting much of his afternoon to emphasizing the importance of mentors and father figures for young people and to prodding young men to be better parents.

“When fathers are absent, when they abandon their responsibility to their children, we know the damage that does to our families,” Obama told teenagers and community leaders in the East Room of the White House, beginning what he called a “national conversation on responsible fatherhood and healthy families.”

Obama sprinkled his talk with references to his own absent father, who left him with his mother in Hawaii when he was 2 and visited him only once after that.

“I say this as someone who grew up without a father in my life,” Obama said. “That’s something that leaves a hole in a child’s heart that governments can’t fill.”

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He said children raised without fathers were more likely to drop out of school and abuse drugs. But aware of his own example, he told his audience — a diverse group that included Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC and the skateboarder Tony Hawk — that growing up fatherless did not mean a person could not succeed.

That Obama was giving such attention to the issue at a time of crisis in Iran and high-stakes debate on health care and financial overhauls shows how personally he takes fatherhood, White House officials said.

An estimated 24 million U.S. children are growing up with absent fathers, and a disproportionate number of them are African-American. Those children are at higher risk of falling into lives of poverty and crime and becoming parents themselves in their teenage years.

The White House is trying to tackle that problem, adding to its packed domestic agenda, but without seeking legislation or new policies. It is sponsoring forums around the country this summer and fall to promote programs for mentors and fathers and to see how the federal government can support them.

Obama also talked Friday about raising his two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 8.

During the question-and-answer part of the event, one student asked Obama: “Which one is funner? Being a father or being a president?”

“There’s nothing more fun than being a father,” Obama said, adding, “Now, my kids aren’t teenagers yet, so I don’t know whether that will maintain itself.”

He told the audience that one of the best moments he has had since becoming president was going to a parent-teacher conference at Sidwell Friends School, “where the teachers were bragging on my children.”

Obama’s remarks were not as tough on black fathers as they have been in the past. Last Father’s Day at one of the largest black churches in Chicago, he delivered a sharp message to black men, saying, “We need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.”

That address was striking for its bluntness. On Friday, his words were more measured, but he still called for personal responsibility and repeated the “conception” line, to applause.

After the session Friday, Obama’s guests headed to the South Lawn for barbecue cooked by the celebrity chef Bobby Flay and mentoring sessions between youths and local fathers, celebrity fathers and every other type of father.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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