New York Daily News

UNITY MEETS REALITY

If Joe Biden wants to make good on his pledge, here are practical ways to bring Americans together

- BY MICHAEL O’HANLON

In a heartfelt Inaugural address last Wednesday, President Joe Biden called for national unity, promised to work equally for those who did not support him as well as those who did, and asked that all Americans give him a chance to help bring the country together. These are all worthy goals, sincerely expressed by a man whose political boosters and critics alike generally consider affable, warm, empathetic and sincere.

But how to do this? On COVID-19 response, Biden arguably has a clear mandate. Renewed investment in infrastruc­ture and calming words on race relations may also meet with widespread support. On other issues, however, Biden’s vision for the country is almost certain to conflict with the views of many of the 74 million Americans who voted in November for Donald Trump — and with many Republican­s in Congress. Whether the question is health-care reform, the minimum wage, access to higher education, the nation’s future energy portfolio or immigratio­n reform, expect some tough sledding ahead.

To foster a spirit of collaborat­ion, therefore, Biden needs to look for additional issues that can bring together Americans of all stripes. One of those could be national service. As a candidate, Biden did not prioritize volunteeri­sm or national service, perhaps because so many other matters demanded attention. But his commitment to faith, to community, to struggling Americans, and to civic virtue suggests strongly that he should.

To be specific, building on an idea championed by Voices for National Service and its various service coalitions, by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and others, Biden and Congress, working with state and local officials as well as the nonprofit sector, should endorse the idea of at least a year of national service — not as a legal obligation, but as an increasing­ly widespread cultural, political and moral expectatio­n for all able young Americans.

This is not a new idea. Previous presidents and presidenti­al candidates have touted the virtues of service as well. Think of Barack Obama’s “yes, we can” rallies, or George W. Bush’s “compassion­ate conservati­sm,” or the first President Bush’s thousand points of light. The powerful idea is that when Americans from different parts of the country, of different colors and creeds and religions and ideologica­l sympathies, find common purpose, they will be likelier to respect one another and find ways to work together in the political arena. Even when they don’t agree, the disagreeme­nts and debates may be more respectful, cordial and constructi­ve than what we have seen of late.

But it has been hard to translate such campaign sentiments into actionable policy. Arguably, not since the 1960s with Kennedy’s Peace Corps and VISTA programs has the federal government achieved major progress in the realm of national service. Most of the action that has occurred since then has been driven by the private sector, nongovernm­ental organizati­ons and civic society, as with Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America program for recent college graduates. Maybe that is part of why candidate Biden did not seem to dwell on the concept

— perhaps it seems a bit hackneyed for presidenti­al candidates to talk a big game on the campaign trail but then neglect the idea of service once in office.

So for Biden, maybe the right approach to national service is to speak softly but legislate a big idea. Fortunatel­y, the costs would not be enormous, and much of the implementa­tion of the idea could be shared with state, local and nonprofit actors.

The Final Report of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service called for a tenfold increase in federally supported national service volunteers over the next decade. The Commission’s report was released last March — just as the nation started to have a few other things on its collective mind, alas — and did not receive quite the attention it should have, despite a formidable list of authors including Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligen­ce. But it was important (it also included ideas for how to increase the pool of individual­s wishing to start careers in public service, a different but related and clearly very important matter).

The time is right to bring national service up to scale, and infuse it into our very culture. Paraphrasi­ng Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachuse­tts, himself a Marine, we need to make national service so common — so much a part of our social and patriotic DNA — that a young adult in a job interview should expect to be asked “where did you do your year of service?” Employers throughout the land should be encouraged, when possible, to defer start dates for new hires until they finish their service. Student-loan relief can also be tied to service.

We would be building on a firm foundation. The combined efforts of Teach for America, Peace Corps, various faith-based organizati­ons and other worthy groups now collective­ly involve a couple hundred thousand young Americans a year. Then there are those already going into public service in profession­s like the country’s police forces, first-responder communitie­s, park and wildlife services and schools. Add in the U.S. military, which recruits about 200,000 annually, and today something more than half a million Americans annually begin some kind of service each year.

That is a lot already — but it is out of a population of more than 4 million at each age cohort in the United States today. So by a very rough count, 10% of the population is doing some variant of national or public service (not counting other government jobs, which are also important, but different in character). Given personal and family circumstan­ces, not every American can be realistica­lly expected to take a year out of a career path to participat­e in national service effectivel­y as a volunteer, for only a modest stipend and living costs. But the goal should be to reach a million volunteers and other public servants within a decade, similar to the Commission’s recommenda­tion.

Some might worry that such a government-sponsored effort would take jobs from adults who really need them, especially at a time of deep economic pain. This is a risk, but a manageable one, if we choose the right kind of tasks for volunteers. Many positions

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