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
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