Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

A Junkie’s Take on Obama’s National Service Plan

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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posted July 7, 2008 at 6:55 pm

If you recall your American History, FDR started the grandaddy of Americore with the CCC that rebuilt America after the Great Depression.
The CCC and the Army Engineers restored confidence in America and its government.
Obama’s plan reminds me of that. At a time when Americans have low self esteem and millions face poverty, lose of homes or jobs (or both), we need a boost from our government rather that padding the rich and offering pennies to the middle class.
The future is ours and we need to claim it for ourselves and our children. I remember a day when education in America was free for its citizens.
It is strange that it has been Democrats that have come up with ways to put Americans to work (FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton and now Obama)yet they have been accused of creating a Welfare State. The highest rate of people under welfare has been when Republicans where in power.
Who really care about the people? Who cares about jobs? Who cares about the elderly? You don’t have to answer, I already know.

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Charles Cosimano

posted July 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm

The CCC was conveniently forgotten when it turned that that on film it looked way too similar to the RAD in Nazi Germany. In fact the surviving footage, with its images of blond young men running around without shirts could easily have been lifted from Triumph of Will and it is impossible to look at it without wondering if Dr. Goebbels had been working part time as a consultant.
What a lot of commentators forget is that for the bulk of us boomers, evading the draft in Vietnam was, and is, a mark of intelligence and an act if not of virtue, at least of common sense. Far from hurting Clinton, it certainly helped him and it was one of the factors that sunk John Kerry’s silly little speedboat. As the line went in 1996, “It was a choice between someone who got blowed up on last day of a war and someone who had the great good sense to avoid being shot at in the first place.” And then in 2004 the line about Kerry was, “Ok, he’s qualified to shoot up a post office,” and was a clear factor in the re-election of George W.

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James Robertson

posted July 24, 2008 at 4:35 pm

You know why he doesn’t mention it with younger audiences? Because bringing up the idea of a national draft will make younger voters think twice about him, that’s why.

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david lewis

posted August 25, 2008 at 7:57 pm

i’m not sure what in obama’s speeches or ideas of national services resembles a national draft. beefing up existing opportunities for people to actually serve their country and earn pride through their actions in america is far different from drafting them into mandatory military service. i say that as active duty member of the military and fervent supporter of the draft.

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dwayne Hunn

posted September 14, 2008 at 1:04 am

People’s Lobby’s nonpartisan American World Service Corps Congressional Proposals is simpler and more robust than the national service proposals from either major candidate. It uses existing governmental and nongovernmental organizations. If implemented as written it would cost effectively field twenty-one million Americans volunteers over the ensuing twenty-seven years in their choice of such governmental and non-governmental organizations as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Head Start, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and State Conservation Corps.
The key AWSC proposed bill is at
Summary info with links to more details is at
People’s Lobby
Dwayne Hunn, Ph.D., Executive Director 415-383-7880
Author of “Ordinary People Doing the Extraordinary”
Recent YouTubes
To sign the AWSC petition

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posted July 9, 2009 at 7:20 pm

expanding National service is just another reason to raise our taxes even higher. Soon Americans will be required to serve sounds like slavery to mee

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posted February 23, 2010 at 9:32 pm

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