Mr. Obama addressed a forum on community service Friday afternoon at the first President Bush’s library, on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. The event had turned into a magnet for protesters opposed to Obama’s policies, leading Mr. Bush to issue an open letter two days ago expressing hope that Obama would experience the “welcoming Aggie spirit.”
On the short motorcade ride to campus from the airport, Obama was greeted by thousands of students lining the route. It’s not clear if he saw protesters when he entered the campus. But inside the auditorium, he was warmly received by the 2,000 assembled service leaders.
“When it comes to the challenges we face, the need for action always exceeds the limits of government,” Obama said, speaking on his first visit to Texas since his election.
“While there’s plenty that government can do and must do to keep our families safe and our planet clean and our markets free and fair, there’s a lot that government can’t and shouldn’t do. And that’s where active, engaged citizens come in. That’s the purpose of service in this nation,” he said.
Promoting volunteerism has been one of the most bipartisan, or nonpartisan, causes of American presidents since Bush’s inaugural speech in 1989. In his most remembered line that day, the 41st president spoke of “a thousand points of light,” as he sought to encourage individuals to address community problems through voluntary service. That led to a federal commission aimed at promoting volunteerism, as well as efforts by each subsequent president to expand community service.
For 2010, the Obama administration has requested a budget of $1.1 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Obama’s speech had its awkward moments. More than once, the president referred to the efforts of volunteers during hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of New Orleans. It was Bush’s son, the 43rd president, whose administration mishandled the federal response to that disaster, which was a defining moment of George W. Bush’s second term. Obama often mentioned Katrina when he campaigned for president.
But the day was really one of bipartisan comity. Once on campus, Obama, Bush, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates – former president of Texas A&M, director of Central Intelligence under Bush 41, and the final Defense secretary under Bush 43 – stopped at the Duncan Dining Center. There, a group of 1,800 Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine cadets were assembled to meet “an important guest.”
“Your commander in chief draws inspiration from you ... and now I’m gonna shake as many hands as I can,” Obama said.
Then it was off to the forum. As part of a 20th anniversary commemoration, the Points of Light Institute released statistics on the growth of volunteerism since Bush became president.
· Twenty-three million more Americans are volunteering today than in 1989. In the past 20 years, the number has increased from 38 million to 61.8 million.
· More than twice as many youths are volunteering today than in 1989 (8.24 million, up from 3.53 million). The volunteer rate for people ages 16 to 24 is now 21.9 percent, up from 13.4 percent.
· Baby boomers and adults over age 65 have both seen increases in volunteerism of at least 40 percent since 1989.
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