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McCain, Obama pledge to boost US volunteerism

Obama would expand federal service efforts; McCain would rely more on private sector.

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Then each laid out very different visions for how they’d change the country to encourage a renaissance of selflessness.

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Obama pledged that “service” will be central to his administration. He’d encourage young people to take up careers in public service and the government (thus, making it “cool.”) He’d do it in part by passing a $3.5 billion national-service program that would expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps as well as provide tax credits of up to $4,000 year to help underwrite college educations in exchange for public service. He’d also significantly expand the all-volunteer army, beef up veterans’ educational and health benefits, and create a kind of civilian corps that could take over some of the Army’s current civic tasks in war-torn regions around the world.

In explaining his goal, Obama recalled the outpouring of “patriotism, emotion, volunteerism, and a desire for service” that occurred after 9/11.

“The question is: How do we recreate that spirit – not just during times of tragedy, not just during 9/11 – how do we honor those who died and those who sacrificed – the firefighters and police officers … every day?” Obama told a crowd of about a thousand at a packed Columbia University auditorium. Outside, thousands of students watched on a huge screen. “The country yearns for that, the country is hungry for it, and what has been missing is a president and a White House that taps into that in a serious way.”

McCain, too, says “a call to serve” would be central in his administration. In the aftermath of 9/11, he says he would have tapped the outpouring of energy by creating a “concrete action plan,” such as urging people to join neighborhood watch groups. He'd also beef up the volunteer Army and encourage young people to serve. In a surprising criticism of Columbia University, he chastised it for not allowing ROTC on campus.

“The best way to commemorate and to show our appreciation – and love and sympathy for the families of those who’ve sacrificed – is to serve our country. That way we can assure their families it will never happen again,” he says. “It’s also probably the best way … to keep their memory alive by protecting the lives of those fellow citizens who were unable to experience it first hand but are in danger.”

McCain would also expand the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps and the nation’s handful of other volunteer programs. He says he would “be glad to spend some money,” but he wasn’t specific and made it clear he’d rely primarily on private industry and volunteer organizations to bolster volunteerism.