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Obama: Boost national service programs

Democrat Barack Obama on Wednesday advocated a major expansion of national service programs. "This will be a cause of my presidency," he said at an Iowa rally.
Obama 2008
Obama strains to hear a question during a meeting with students and local residents, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007, at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrat Barack Obama on Wednesday advocated a major expansion of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other national service programs, saying "This will be a cause of my presidency."

The Illinois senator said that the government is not keeping pace with those who want to serve. "We will create new opportunities for all of us to serve," he said at a rally at Cornell College.

Obama evoked the memory of President John F. Kennedy and his Peace Corps volunteers. "JFK made their service a bridge to the developing world," he said.

His plan would:

  • Expand AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 positions to 250,000, with new units to deal with education, clean energy, health care and homeland security.
  • Expand service programs involving retired individuals and those over age 55.
  • Double the size of the Peace Corps from its current 7,800 volunteers to 16,000 by its 50th anniversary in 2012.
  • Set goals for middle-school and high-school students to serve 50 hours a year of public service, and for college students to serve 100 hours a year.

Despite growing anti-Americanism around the world, "the American people are not the problem, they are the answer," Obama said.

Obama said he would also expand the all-volunteer military, but "we will never send them to fight in a misguided war."

"The burden of service has fallen more and more on the brave men and women of our military," he said, citing "tour upon tour of duty in a war with no end."

"We will enlist veterans to help other veterans to find jobs, and to pitch in at VA hospitals and nursing homes," Obama said.

Other Democratic candidates have also proposed expanding national service. Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, a former Peace Corps volunteer, has proposed making community service mandatory for all high school students, doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011 and expanding the AmeriCorps national service program to 1 million participants. He also proposed encouraging service by adults by offering tax credits to employers who give workers paid time off to volunteer and $1,000 grants for seniors who help out in schools. The money could be used for their own continuing education or that of a child or grandchild.

Richardson's college-loan-linked plan
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed forgiving a portion of college loans if graduates complete a year of national service. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has promoted community service through his One Corps program, which brings together his supporters in each state to work on service projects.

During a question-and-answer session, Obama said if elected he would lift the Bush administration's ban on federally funded embryonic stem-cell and close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also said that he would have his attorney general review every executive order issued by Bush and reject those that infringe on constitutional or civil rights.

Asked if he would legalize gay marriages, Obama said he would not do so at the federal level, but would ensure that same-sex couples are guaranteed all the rights and benefits as married couples.

Obama is vying with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the lead in polls of Iowa Democrats. Edwards is close behind.

As he has done on other college campuses across the state, Obama urged students home for the holidays to come back to campus early to vote in the Jan. 3 caucuses.

"You have this unique opportunity to shape history. If you are an Iowa student, you need to go to the Iowa caucuses," Obama said.

He did not include an appeal that out-of-state students participate in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a suggestion that generated criticism from some of his rivals, including Clinton.

Instead, Obama said, "For those of you going to your hometowns around the state of Iowa ... I need you to get your parents and your grandparents and your friends. Take them with you to the caucuses."