Beliefnet
Steven Waldman

While I usually attempt to be objective, I need to fess up to a raging bias when it comes to “national service,” i.e. government programs to encourage full-time civilian service. I wrote a book about the creation of AmeriCorps and became such a convert to the idea that I left journalism to work at the Corporation for National Service, the government agency that ran AmeriCorps. (One of my proudest moments was undertaking hilariously top-secret talks with a leading Republican opponent to save the program, which was slated for extinction by the new GOP-controlled congress). My wife used to call me a “service junkie.”I’m convinced that national service is a sort of Swiss Army Knife of domestic policy – a single approach that solves multiple problems – building bridges between Americans of different races, instilling a sense of gratitude and patriotism, helping pay for college and fixing actual social problems. The creation of AmeriCorps was one of Bill Clinton’s greatest accomplishments and the preservation of it one of George Bush’s. So I was naturally intrigued when I saw that Obama had given a major speech on national service.Substantively, Obama’s plan is outstanding. It would increase AmeriCorps from 75,000 slots per year to 250,000, focusing on education, health care, energy, veterans and homeland security. He would double the Peace Corps and require colleges to have more of their work-study jobs become service jobs. Just as interesting was the way he talked about service. During the1992 campaign, Clinton invariably used service as a second beat in a sentence emphasizing college financial aid: providing extra financial aid for those who did service. National service advocates routinely urged him to talk about it as a service program rather than a college financial program but Clinton’s political advisors thought service seemed like a peripheral, do-gooder issue compared to college aid.Obama, by contrast, flipped the emphasis – focusing on service over aid. In the part of his speech about the expansion of AmeriCorps, he literally didn’t mention that each corps member earns college assistance. “We were ready to step into the strong current of history, and to answer a new call for our country. But the call never came,” he declared. “Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping.” He added: “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.” Strikingly, he also spent the first part talking about military service. “Through their commitment, their capability, and their courage they have done us all proud.” He specifically urged Americans to sign up for the military.This is significant for two reasons. First, in the past he’s forgotten to talk about the military as service. He was lambasted for not mentioning it when discussing the topic in a commencement address at Wesleyan. The page on his website about service still refers only to civilian service and his first major speech on service in 2007 has only one sentence on the military. He’s learning.Second, Obama’s approach again contrasts with Clinton’s. Because his avoidance of Vietnam service was such a central issue, Clinton never wanted to be seen as equating military and civilian service so he never mentioned them in the same breath. Obama, unencumbered by the albatross of being a suspected draft-evader, apparently felt comfortable casting civilian service in the same speech.Advocates for service in the both the Bush and Clinton administrations shared the same frustration: both men talked enthusiastically about their service programs, and even fought for their expansion. But they didn’t make them central elements of their administration. They were nice programs they would trot out a couple of times a year but didn’t view service as a way to solve the critical domestic problems of their presidency.Obama has promised to be different. “This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program – this will be a central cause of my presidency.. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges.”There are reasons to think Obama has his heart fully in this. His wife, Michelle, was hired to run an AmeriCorps program in Chicago. His Chicago neighborhood organizing job was community service. He has surrounded himself with the best service advisors in the country, Harris Wofford, Alan Khazei (the co-founder of City Year) and Vanessa Kirsch (the founder of Public Allies).But here’s what worries me. Despite that promise, if you look at his non-service speeches, he seems to forget to mention it. In his interview with Rolling Stone – a youth targeted publication–he doesn’t mention it. His essay on the “Real Meaning of Patriotism” in Time magazine didn’t mention it. His speech on expanding the faith-based initiative didn’t mention service even though that’s a major function of AmeriCorps. His speech on energy independent didn’t mention it, even though he’s proposed a corps to improve energy efficiency.If he keeps segregating his service rhetoric and proposal just for the Patriotism Events, it will be hard to take seriously that he’s making this central to his campaign.Fwiw, here are excerpts from his speech (from the Obama campaign):

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