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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Call To Service

As a long-time (since the mid-1980s) foot soldier in the uphill effort to get the United States to adopt a serious national service system, I was quite interested in Barack Obama’s Mount Vernon, Iowa speech earlier this week, in which he unveiled a comprehensive service proposal that would represent something between a major expansion and a quantum leap.
Among national service junkies, a distinction is frequently made between government-organized, compensated service, and public support for (typically uncompensated) voluntarism, with Republicans typically supporting the latter (e.g., Bush 41’s “Points of Light” initiative) but not fhe former. Among Democrats favoring some sort of public support for more serious, sustained and focused kinds of service, the main distinction is between those who view service as a relatively minor if valuable resource for dealing with national or community problems, and those who want service to become a quasi-universal experience for Americans, much like the military was for men prior to the abolition of the draft.
Obama’s proposal covers both compensated and uncompensated service; sustained as well as occasional service opportunities; and in its entiretly, moves in the direction of making service a “universal opportunity,” though not a legal obligation.
He’d double the size of the Peace Corps, and more than triple the size of AmeriCorps. (In this respect, the one candidate who outdoes him, and by a big margin, is Chris Dodd, who would expand AmeriCorps from the current 70,000 positions to one million).
At the same time, Obama would encourage voluntary community service among high school and college students, the former by making federal aid to school districts conditional on the creation of service programs, and the latter by linking an expansion of tax credits for college tuition to an obligation to perform 100 hours of service each year.
More interestingly, for those familiar with past national service struggles, Obama appears to favor shifting the College Work-Study program towards service positions rather than part-time employment at colleges, an idea that college administrators have bitterly opposed in the past.
Finally, Obama would create a Social Investment Fund aimed at supporting non-profit community service initiatives.
As noted above, only Dodd rivals Obama at this point in his commitment to national service. Clinton’s service agenda (as does Biden’s) aims at creating a West-Point-style Public Service Academy, though she’d also double the size of AmeriCorps stipends. Edwards, as in the past, is focused on making service a focus of K-12 education programs, and a condition for high school graduation. Richardson’s main initiative is to provide student loan forgiveness for various forms of service. If any of the Republican candidates have a significant service proposal, I can’t find it with a casual search (see this Time article for a quick review of the field on this subject).
It’s anyone’s guess whether service could become a significant issue in the campaign. Back in 1992, Bll Clinton’s campaign consultants weren’t real jazzed about his insistence on talking about national service, until they noticed it had become one of his biggest applause lines in the early primaries. Most Democratic candidates at some point get around to pointing out that George W. Bush lost a big opportunity after 9/11 when all he asked of Americans was to travel and shop. They should also make a point of explaining exactly what they would ask of Americans, and how they would support and organize those who respond to a call to service. Obama and Dodd are to be applauded for doing just that.

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