Don’t Muffle the Call to Serve

The day before the inauguration is the Martin Luther King holiday, and the president-elect wants it to be devoted to service. But Barack Obama knows that one Monday of good deeds—even if it becomes an annual tradition when people help each other rather than sit home watching TV—isn't enough. Throughout the campaign, he talked about something much bigger—a new era of civic engagement, with a quarter-million young people helping pay for their education by serving their country at home and abroad.

But as Mario Cuomo is fond of pointing out, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year, you transition in prose, too. That means the dreams of the Obama Generation are in danger of being deferred even before their man takes office. The economists confronting the present crisis apparently don't have a lot of time for programs like AmeriCorps, which uses a network of local and national nonprofits to employ 75,000 mostly young Americans to teach kids to read, to run after-school programs, to build affordable housing, to clean parks and streams, among many other service projects. The brainiacs aren't sure these do-gooders are relevant to recovery. They're wrong about that, in more ways than one.

With the new Congress convening this week, Democrats are planning to have the roughly $700 billion stimulus package ready for the new president to sign ASAP. For all the talk of transparency, Obama's big opening act is being prepared in secret. But we know this: The "shovel-ready" public-works projects will definitely get funded; the "people-ready" good-works projects might not. And if AmeriCorps isn't expanded now, there likely won't be money for it later, when we're facing trillion-dollar deficits.

Of course that's what they all say. Everyone wants to board the gravy train before it leaves the station. The answer to this special pleading is plain. We're told the legislation won't, in Beltway parlance, be a Christmas tree, festooned with expensive ornaments that look nice in a congressional district but don't stimulate the economy.

When asked what will be "in the package" (three magic Washington words), the Obama press office refers reporters to an op-ed piece by Lawrence Summers in The Washington Post. Summers, the master of Obama's economic universe, specifies constructing schools, laboratories, libraries, roads and bridges and investing in renewable energy (the fabled "green-collar" jobs) and modern health-care systems. Each of these sectors has powerful advocates in state and local government, business and labor.

National service, unmentioned by Summers, has a weaker lobby. From the days when FDR overcame union opposition and bureaucratic resistance to form the Civilian Conservation Corps (which managed to get 250,000 unemployed young men working immediately, planting trees and clearing trails) to JFK championing the Peace Corps, George H.W. Bush's "points of light" and Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, the leadership in inspiring service has always come from the president himself.

Obama, too, seems committed to national service in theory. He supports the bipartisan Kennedy-Hatch bill, which would greatly expand service opportunities. He knows that having images of himself and possibly Colin Powell out there in recruitment stations offering some variation of "Uncle Sam wants YOU" would help meet not just domestic needs but those of the military, which is 100,000 short of its manpower goals. But the president-elect has not yet shown that he understands how central national service can be in creating jobs.

Consider this: for 1 percent of the stimulus, about $7 billion, Obama could create 8 percent of the 3 million new jobs he has promised. Those 250,000 new national-service slots would simultaneously fulfill his campaign pledge to young people. And with 15 years of scandal-free AmeriCorps apparatus in place, service jobs can be established with Rooseveltian speed, an important criteria for inclusion in the stimulus. At about $20,000 each, AmeriCorps jobs are also much less expensive than those in construction.

The other standard Obama has wisely applied to the package is that every dollar spent should help the country long-term. Thus the projects enumerated by Summers would rebuild infrastructure, lessen dependence on foreign oil and reduce health-care costs. But investing in human capital is every bit as critical for the future. Service develops the talents of those who perform it as well as those they help. It changes lives. And communitarian thinking is contagious. Each year, AmeriCorps's 75,000 full-time members leverage another 1.7 million volunteers.

The Obama team knows a thing or two about community-building. With 3 million volunteers and as many as 15 million supporters in his e-mail database, the new president possesses both the largest American political organization ever built and a potentially powerful instrument of service and social change.

But as ecstatic campaign memories fade and those cheery Webcasts pile up in the mailbox, Obama World will need fresh ways to keep people involved. The millions who gather this month in Washington for the Inaugural (or watch excitedly from home) want to be told how they might do something for America beyond going to the mall. Their pent-up idealism could wither in harsh times without more outlets.

This is particularly true of the young. If they graduate from high school or college in June with no job and no chance for national service, more than a few might wonder if the whole Obama thing was for real. Young people shouldn't be bought off with favors any more than some other constituency. But their dreams are hardly inconsequential. So including Kennedy-Hatch "in the package"—nearly tripling national service opportunities overnight—is not just another Washington gambit. It's a way of restoring faith in the decency of the country. With that faith comes confidence and recovery.

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