December 5, 2007
Obama's service plan
As I write, Barack Obama is at Cornell College in Iowa unveiling his national service plan, along with Senator Harris Wofford. The text of the plan is here (pdf) and here's the speech. It's ambitious in that it envisions dramatically expanding the number of slots in federal programs such as the Peace Corps; creating new corps especially devoted to various important public issues (such as clean energy and health); changing financial incentives so that colleges and universities will fund more student service; integrating service better into k-12 education; and funding "social entrepreneurship" in the nonprofit sector. It is a $3.5 billion/year plan, which is a serious investment.
I think national service programs represent an important aspect of civic renewal. They create opportunities for people to work on public problems without having to enter bureaucracies or obtain credentials--that's how I'd define "social entrepreneurship." They express respect for ordinary Americans' potential to contribute. (For instance, Obama would enlist Americans who speak foreign languages to go overseas and represent us.) And good service programs provide an education in citizenship for participants of all ages.
I do not believe, however, that national and community service exhaust our options for civic renewal. Other major goals include: promoting effective public deliberation about policy, reforming the political system to make it more responsive and deliberative, and revising substantive policies in areas like health and education so that they encourage public participation. Senator Edwards has advanced important ideas regarding public deliberation and political reform. The November Fifth Coalition is showing what it would mean to reform substantive policies. There is still room, clearly, for Senator Obama and other candidates to propose more ideas to renew democratic participation.
I'll be interested in the degree to which the press reports the new Obama service agenda. Most of the coverage of Edwards' "democracy agenda" was generated by colleagues and associates of mine who deliberately wrote supportive op-ed pieces (collected here). Their message was: Edwards has good ideas, but there is plenty of room for other candidates to stake out civic ground. I'd say that remains the case even after today's excellent speech by Senator Obama.