Wednesday, June 18, 2008

National Service and the Presumptive Republican and Democratic Nominees for President

After June 3rd, the US Presidential race is down to two major-party candidates, John McCain of the Republican Party and Barack Obama of the Democratic Party. McCain and Obama have both shown a willingness to discuss the expansion of AmeriCorps and new ideas for national and community service in the US. Here at ICP, we have paid close attention to their platforms, as the future of National Service both in the US and abroad is contingent upon the policies of the two candidates.

Both candidates have called for young men and women to serve their country in some capacity—in the armed forces, AmeriCorps, or the Peace Corps. Along with this call, the candidates have proposed implementing specific new program initiatives and policy changes in order to achieve the goal of increased civic engagement, though Obama’s platform is more comprehensive than McCain’s.

John McCain voted against the AmeriCorps bill in 1993, but later became an advocate for the expansion of AmeriCorps. In 2003, he cosponsored the “Call to Service” bill with Senator Evan Bayh, which would have vastly increased the size of AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps and provided monetary compensation for the work.

However, more recently his support has waned as he has admittedly focused more on security issues. In 2005, he called for US citizens, even those who oppose the war, to contribute 2 years of service to the United States as an act of patriotism. In an Op-Ed in the Dallas Morning News, McCain wrote:
“There are few greater ways of infusing your life with meaning than by spending two or more years in the service of your nation. The military obviously forms an exceptional way to serve America and our ideals, but it is not the only route. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps also provide excellent and fulfilling ways to serve.”
At present, the Republican candidate’s major policy initiative related to civic service is his support of “Troops-to-Teachers,” which creates incentives for returning military service people to transition into careers in teaching. In a March 15th, 2008 speech in Columbus, Ohio, McCain spoke about his vision for National Service and the US educational system in 2013:
“Public education in the United States is much improved thanks to the competition provided by charter and private schools; the increase of quality teachers through incentives like merit pay and terrific programs that attract to the classroom enthusiastic and innovative teachers from many disciplines, like Teach for America and Troops to Teachers.”
Although vocally supportive of AmeriCorps and Teach for America (an AmeriCorps program), McCain has failed to present a dynamic and thorough policy for expanding and funding these programs. When asked by ServeNext (an organization dedicated to advocating for increasing the visibility of National Service programs as well as funding them) to sign their “Presidential Pledge to Expand National Service1,” McCain declined, saying, “I stand on my record, not on pledges.”

On the other side of the aisle, Barack Obama not only signed the ServeNext Pledge, but has also developed a more comprehensive proposal to address the need for national youth service and civic engagement. On his website, Obama has a page dedicated to service under his “Issues” section. Here, Obama details his plan for improving support and funding for National Youth Service Programs.

One of his major initiatives would include expanding AmeriCorps from 75,000 slots annually to 250,000, as well as doubling the size of the Peace Corps. Obama also provides for changing American culture to be more receptive to national service by stimulating service learning in middle and high schools and by offering a $4,000 tax credit to college students willing to contribute 100 hours of public service a year.

Obama has made several speeches, including his December 5, 2007 speech, “A Call to Serve” at Cornell College in which he laid out the national service platform for his campaign and his May 25, 2008 commencement address at Wesleyan University, which outlines the vision he has for youth service in the context of the future of the United States. In the speech at Wesleyan, he said,
“As President, I intend to grow the Foreign Service, double the Peace Corps over the next few years, and engage the young people of other nations in similar programs, so that we work side by side to take on the common challenges that confront all humanity… …You know, Ted Kennedy often tells a story about the fifth anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps. He was there, and he asked one of the young Americans why he had chosen to volunteer. And the man replied, “Because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country.” I don’t know how many of you have been asked that question, but after today, you have no excuses.”
This speech went beyond a simple endorsement of the AmeriCorps program—it was a call to young men and women to serve their country in any way possible. In his speech at Wesleyan, Obama made clear that his support for national service derives in part from his own experience as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago – a connection that links national service to a progressive view of national service as a vehicle for social change and justice

In a world where civic engagement has become increasingly popular and where young men and women have increasingly attempted to donate their time and skills to help create change, support for programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps from the highest levels of government has never been more important.

(For more current information with regards to Presidential Candidate Obama's position, also see this speech at CU-Colorado Springs.)

ServeNext does not have the Presidential Pledge uploaded to their website; however, they do have the
Congressional Pledge, which is the exact same pledge, only that it instead asks the congressperson to join the Congressional Caucus for National Service.

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