Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Obama on national and community service

Barack Obama gave a speech today in Colorado Springs about national and community service.

"I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate -- I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said.

"This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency," he said. "We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges."
On the one hand, this sounds like about the most cliched kind of platitude a candidate can offer, a verbose version of Kennedy's "Ask not what your country cand do for you, ask what you can do for your country." But Obama has the potential to follow this up with some real action. This article has a few specifics:

Obama, an Illinois senator, touted a package of proposals he first offered in December that would expand AmeriCorps, the domestic service agency, and double the size of the Peace Corps.

He also would offer more service opportunities to retirees and set goals for middle- and high-school students to serve 50 hours a year of public service, and for college students to serve 100 hours a year.
There are a couple of reasons I am giving him credit for something more than making vague promises. First, there is an infrastructure of national and community service organizations out there. For this, Obama owes a great debt to Bill Clinton, who set up Americorps. National and community service was a very big deal around the time Clinton was elected, and he was very supportive.

Second, those organizations, governmental agencies, and their advocates are starved for attention, and desperate for the right support. "Pragmatic idealism" was a watchword when I was in DC in 92-94. There are a lot of organization which are very focused and competent. They've survived the Bush presidency, and the years of Republican control of Congress before that. They are just waiting for the right legislative action to blossom. All Obama has to do is appoint the right people and set the right priorities, and amazing things will happen.

I have a good friend who once missed a concert because he was working so hard opposing Republican efforts to cut funding for national service. It was a bummer for him, but it worked out for me, because I got his ticket, and I got to see the Rolling Stones.

One of the coolest groups that I was involved with way back then was a group called Public Allies. The Obamas know it well: Barack himself was part of the founding, and Michelle ran the Chicago office.

I've said it before, I will say it again, and I am sure I will say it again and again: The revolution started in the '60's, was kept alive by Clinton in the '90's, and will be finished by Barack Obama in the 21st century.

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