President Obama’s Record on National Service
Tonight President Barack Obama will accept his party’s nomination for President of the United States at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. In his acceptance speech I suspect the President will talk about what he has accomplished over the last four years and make his case as to why the American people should give him four more. But before he does, we at ServiceNation want to evaluate and dig a little deeper into what the Obama Administration has meant specifically for national service in America.
First and foremost we have to give President Obama credit for championing and signing into law the 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (SAA), which among other things authorized the expansion of AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 members by 2017. But as we all know by now, authorizing the expansion of national service positions is one thing, getting Congress to appropriate the money to actually make it happen is another.
The annual appropriations process begins with the President submitting a budget proposal to Congress. For FY10, the first budget submitted by President Obama, he proposed $1.13 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). With the SAA passing two months later, President Obama was actually able to secure $1.15 billion for the CNCS and increase the number of AmeriCorps slots from 75,000 to 85,000. Not a bad start.
The following year, President Obama sought to keep the goals of the SAA on track and proposed $1.416 billion for the CNCS for FY11, an increase of $266 million which would have increased the number of AmeriCorps positions from 85,000 to 105,000 members. Because the House and Senate were unable to pass the budget before the 2010 mid-term elections, the budget for FY11 didn’t end up anywhere close to that. Instead, due to tough negotiations with a new Republican controlled House of Representatives who wanted to eliminate AmeriCorps, the CNCS budget for FY11 ended up being cut to $1.076 billion, $339 million less than the President’s request that resulted in the elimination of Learn and Serve America and a loss of 2,500 AmeriCorps positions.
In an attempt to get the goals of the SAA back on track, President Obama requested $1.3 billion for CNCS in FY12. This increase in funding would have expanded the number of AmeriCorps positions from 82,500 to 90,000 members. House Republicans countered with their proposal of $280 million (Yes million with an M) that would have eliminated AmeriCorps and the entire CNCS with the exception of Senior Corps. After tough negotiations, the result for FY12 was $1.05 billion for CNCS, a cut of $25 million for national service programs with AmeriCorps positions staying flat at 82,500.
And finally we reach the forth and current Obama budget proposal. For national service supporters, this is perhaps the most disappointing and the least bold from the President. In what appears to be retreat from the fight to achieve the goals of the Serve America Act, the President proposed $1.1 billion for CNCS in FY13 which amounts to level funding that would keep the number of AmeriCorps positions at 82,500 members instead of the 140,000 members called for in the SAA. With the House of Representatives once again proposing the complete elimination of AmeriCorps, the outcome of the FY13 budget battle will have to wait until after the 2012 elections.
Beyond just looking at President Obama’s budget request for national service over the last four years, evaluating President Obama’s national service record should look at other factors as well. President Obama created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, which works to advance national service, volunteerism, and innovative approaches to social problems. And national service leaders and supporters can be found throughout the White House starting with the First Lady Michelle Obama, who served as the founding Executive Director of Public Allies Chicago, White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, Jonathan Greenblatt, and many others. And just recently, the White House hosted over 150 AmeriCorps Alums to the White House to highlight how national service is a pathway to opportunity and career advancement.
Even so, there have still been moments when we’ve felt the White House could do more to fulfill the promises and goals of the SAA. One missed opportunity in our view was not including the expansion of national service positions in President Obama’s jobs plan, the American Jobs Act. Instead of turning away over a million applications of Americans who want to go to work serving their country through AmeriCorps, we strongly urge President Obama and Congress to create one million new jobs by expanding national service positions.
Overall, President Obama has been a strong supporter of national service over his four years in office like his previous four predecessors. Unlike Mitt Romney, I don’t think the question is whether or not President Obama will support national service as President of the United States. It’s clear he does. For President Obama, the question is how much of a priority will national service be in a 2nd term and how bold will he be to get the goals and promises of the Serve America Act back on track.