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Obama: Expand National Service Programs

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

The Illinois senator said the government is not keeping pace with those who want to help. “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 Kennedy and his Peace Corps volunteers, saying, “JFK made their service a bridge to the developing world.” Despite growing anti-Americanism around the world, he said, “the American people are not the problem, they are the answer.”

Obama, a senator from Illinois, said he also would expand the all-volunteer military but would “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.” For returning troops, he said, “We will enlist veterans to help other veterans to find jobs, and to pitch in at VA hospitals and nursing homes.”

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 people and anyone over 55.

Double the size of the Peace Corps from its current 7,800 volunteers to 16,000 by its 50th anniversary in 2011.

Set goals for middle school and high school students to give 50 hours a year of public service, and for college students to serve 100 hours a year.

Other Democratic candidates also have 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 has 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.

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.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has proposed creating a U.S. Public Service Academy modeled after the military academies, and has proposed giving everyone who engages in national service full time for a year, a $10,000 college scholarship. She has co-sponsored legislation to provide federal financing to support public service programs in elementary and high schools.

On other subjects during a question-and-answer session, Obama said if elected he would lift the Bush administration’s ban on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research and close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also said 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 try to legalize gay marriages, Obama said he would not do so at the federal level, but would ensure that same-sex couples are guaranteed the same rights and benefits as married couples.

Obama is vying with 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 planning to go 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 has 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.”

Later, at a rally on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Obama said, “I’m only going to win if all of you caucus. … We are in a defining moment in our history.”

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