August 20, 2008
Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama don’t agree on much. The economy, Social Security, the Iraq war and foreign policy, immigration reform, alternative energy, health care and gay rights–on every one of these contested issues the two candidates clash, frequently sparring on the campaign trail.
However, there’s one issue on which the plain-spoken McCain and the self-confident Obama do agree: The importance of national service to the future of the United States.
This shared belief is best exemplified in the two presidential candidates’ ambitious, though uniquely different, visions for the future expansion of national service organizations.
Today’s service organizations report staggering increases in applicants and participants. The number of volunteers serving abroad in the Peace Corps–over 8,000 in 74 countries–is at its highest in 37 years. Teach for America, one of the nation’s largest non-profits, reports that its 2008 class of teachers is the largest in the organization’s 18-year history by almost 30 percent. Similarly, YouthBuild, a non-profit in which low-income youth work toward their high school diplomas while building affordable housing, has had to turn away thousands of young people due to a lack of space. All this as federal funding to service organizations continues to decrease. But McCain and Obama, each with notable service experience, are pledging to put the power of the federal government back behind service organizations and make public service a central tenet of their campaigns.
Obama recently emphasized this priority in his address to students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States,” said Obama, earning comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “Ask Not” inauguration speech. “This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program,” he continued. “This will be a central cause of my presidency.”
Similarly, in McCain’s recent commencement speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he told graduates, “If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them… [T]here are many public causes where your service can make our country a stronger, better one than we inherited.” Both candidates spoke on college campuses before crowds of young people, a clear acknowledgment that no service plan proposed by any politician or party will succeed without the support and participation of young Americans.