Obama on family and work policy -- if France can, why can't we?

US President Barack Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, 2014 in Washington
US President Barack Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, 2014 in Washington (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan )

Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama on Monday lamented that America was on its "lonesome" as the only developed nation not to offer paid maternity leave, as he called for a new family-friendly 21st Century workplace.

Obama headlined a "Working Families Summit" in Washington and flexed his presidential powers to direct government agencies to adopt more flexible workplace practices to allow parents to manage home and professional commitments.

"Other countries know how to do this. If France can figure this out, we can figure it out," Obama said, calling for a new approach to maternity and family leave, and early childhood education.

"There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave," Obama told a supportive crowd at a Washington hotel.

"That is us. And that is not the list you want to be on by your lonesome."

Consistent with a presidency constrained by Republicans on Capitol Hill, Obama complained that Congress was doing too little to help Americans in their everyday lives.

He called on lawmakers to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable workplace flexibility for pregnant women who stay on the job close to their due dates.

Speaking with clear passion, Obama said he was deeply committed to the issue, after being brought up by a single mother and a grandmother who put in long hours at work -- and as a husband and father of two young girls.

"I take this personally because I'm the husband of a brilliant woman who's struggled to balance work and raising our girls when I was away, and I remember the stresses that were on Michelle," he said.

Obama has often spoken of the strains imposed on his family when he was working away from their hometown of Chicago, first as a local lawmaker, then as a US senator and finally as a presidential candidate.

"I am the father of two unbelievable young ladies," he said, referring to daughters Malia and Sasha.

"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."

The event was billed as the latest in a string of actions Obama is taking with his executive powers to advance priorities reined in by Congress and to stave off the lame duck status that all second term presidents dread.