McCain, Obama pledge to boost US volunteerism

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

Stephan Savoia/AP
GOP presidential candidate John McCain (left) greets his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, at a forum on national service at Columbia University on Sept. 11.

Barack Obama wants to make government “cool again” to encourage young people to serve and leverage volunteerism in communities across the country. John McCain wants to “inspire” people to serve a cause “greater than their own self interest” and encourage businesses to support employees who do public service.

In a rare congenial evening during this increasingly acrimonious campaign, the two presidential candidates agreed that the American heritage of volunteerism and selfless service is part of what makes this country “exceptional.”

Both also pledged to make the encouragement of national service one of their top priorities if elected and to expand AmeriCorps, the federal government’s community-service program.

Each even went so far as to pledge to appoint the other to a “cabinet level” position to oversee national service, although Senator McCain then hedged about creating yet another cabinet level position.

This unusual show of unity came Thursday evening, the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks at a summit at Columbia University in New York. It was sponsored by ServiceNation, a coalition of groups dedicated to restoring what it calls the nation’s “great tradition of citizen service.” The movement was inspired by the families of the 9/11 victims. They are determined that the day be remembered not just for the loss of lives and tragedy when the Twin Towers came down, but also for the extraordinary outpouring of humanity that followed.

“Flash back to how you felt in the days and weeks after 9/11,” says Jay Winuk, who lost his brother Glenn and is now the vice president and cofounder of “As a nation, we need to embrace that and put it to good and sustained use.”

And so to kick off a two-day summit dedicated to “an America that is ruggedly idealistic, compassionate, and above all committed to the idea of shared sacrifice" – in the words of the ServiceNation’s website – it brought together the two men who want to lead the country.

Each was eager to talk about his own life of service – in the military and in communities hard hit by job losses. And each praised the other’s history of service. McCain even called Senator Obama’s “record there outstanding,” despite repeated efforts by his campaign to disparage “community organizing.”

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

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.

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