Both John McCain and Barack Obama exhorted Americans to dedicate themselves to public service in an appearance at Columbia University on Thursday, to mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11. But Americans need no lectures from politicians to participate in their nation’s civic life. They need them to stay out of the way. Between the two, Sen. Obama is far less likely to do so.
At first blush, the two candidates appear indistinguishable on the subject. Both have urged Americans to look beyond their individual, material pursuits and commit themselves to causes greater than themselves — Sen. McCain arguably even more aggressively than Mr. Obama. The difference is that for Mr. McCain this is a moral ideal. For Mr. Obama, it is a governing mission. “Making that call to service will be a central cause of my presidency,” he declared in an Independence Day address at the University of Colorado and elsewhere.
Mr. McCain certainly uses his bully pulpit to proselytize Americans about public service. But he more or less stops there, even repeatedly cautioning during the Columbia forum against federalizing public service, although that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t throw taxpayer money at some of his pet service projects. However, his Web site offers nothing near what Mr. Obama is proposing.
Mr. Obama has laid out a 10-page vision statement that includes virtually every program proposed by the left and the right in recent memory and then some. President Bush’s controversial faith-based initiative? He’ll keep it. President Kennedy’s Peace Corps? He’ll double it. Even Mr. McCain’s seven-year-old plan to raise a domestic civilian force to fight terrorism and triple enrollment in AmeriCorps gets a plug.
In addition, Mr. Obama would create several new corps of his own: a Classroom Corps to help teachers and students in underperforming schools; a Health Corps for underserved areas; a Clean Energy Corps to weatherize homes and promote energy independence. The last is separate from his Global Energy Corps, to promote low-carbon energy solutions in developing countries.
Mr. Obama calls all this his “Plan for Universal and Voluntary Citizen Service.” It might live up to its “universal” billing, given that it would prod Americans of all age groups — from preteens to retirees — to sign up. But as to its voluntariness, the plan will make generous use of Uncle Sam’s money — and muscle.
My coverage of national service and Service Nation can be found here.