Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Every so often during the past endless year of campaiging, I have felt vaguely queasy about Barack Obama. His policies worry me and his misogyny enrages me but I was having a hard time tracking down the source of that low-level nausea. I felt it again a couple of days ago and I’ve now got a pretty good idea what’s bothering me.

Greg Mankiw has up a post which includes the following quote from the “America Serves” section of Obama’s Change.gov presidential transition Website (emphasis Mankiw’s):

Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.

I highly recommend Mankiw’s post for content but my roiled stomach was caused by his update:

Update: The presidential transition website to which I linked above no longer uses the word "require." The passage quoted above was copied and pasted from that website (with bolding added by me). But within a few hours after I posted it here, the wording changed to "setting a goal."

I am delighted to see this blog having so much influence on the policies of the new administration. That's change I can believe in!

He is correct. Obama’s Change.gov Website now says (emphasis mine):

Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free.

I realize changing positions is not new for Obama but this really creeps me out. It feels less like Obama’s famous flip-flops on telecom immunity in FISA, public campaign financing, and NAFTA and more like the Universal Mortgage Credit modification, another small issue that made me feel a little green around the gills.

Why does this make me queasy?

First, the language was changed after it was publicly criticized. (Mankiw wasn’t the only person writing about this.) This feels less like correcting a misstatement that someone has spotted and more like shifting ground to avoid being held accountable. As Holtz-Eakin put it when talking about the Universal Mortgage Credit changes, trying to pin Obama down is like “trying to pin Jello to the wall.”

Second, Obama’s previous statements on community service for students have been ambiguous enough to support either version. In a July 2 speech Obama described his plans to integrate service into learning:

I will set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year. This means that by the time you graduate college, you'll have done 17 weeks of service.

We'll reach this goal in several ways. At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities. At the community level, we'll develop public-private partnerships so students can serve more outside the classroom.

For college students, I have proposed an annual American Opportunity Tax Credit of $4,000. To receive this credit, we'll require 100 hours of public service.

In this formulation the community service for middle and high school students sounds like it’s going to be required: if Federal funding is contingent on “service programs” then schools will require service. Unless, of course, the schools are only required to “offer ... service opportunities” and will get their Federal money regardless of how many students avail themselves of those opportunities.

The college community service sounds totally voluntary, just a nice way to offset some of the costs of higher education.

Meanwhile the Obama campaign Website says:

Obama and Biden will set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year. They will develop national guidelines for service-learning and will give schools better tools both to develop programs and to document student experience. [snip]

Require 100 Hours of Service in College: Obama and Biden will establish a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that is worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year.

In this formulation the middle and high school service sounds more voluntary - there is no mention of tying Federal funds to community service - although the “set” part of “set a goal” is pretty ambiguous. Meanwhile the description of the American Opportunity Tax Credit here is virtually identical to the description from the speech but the heading before the description clearly says “Require 100 Hours of Service in College”.

A third source, the campaign National Service Plan Fact Sheet, says (pages 3-4):

That plan [school funding] conditions that assistance on school districts developing programs to engage students in service opportunities. Obama and Biden believe that middle and high school students should be expected to engage in community service for 50 hours annually during the school year or summer months. [snip]

Require 100 Hours of Service in College: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will make college affordable for all Americans by creating a new American Opportunity Tax Credit. This fully refundable credit will ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans, and will cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at the average public college or university. Recipients of this credit will be required to conduct 100 hours of public service a year, either during the school year or over the summer months.

At the middle and high school level, we’re back to Federal funding being contingent on schools “developing ... service opportunies” while student community service is now “expected” - whatever that means. Meanwhile the college community service still sounds voluntary - you only do it if you want the Tax Credit - but the label still says “Require”

The upshot of all this is that Obama’s campaign positions on integrating service into education can be cited to support both the original “required” policy on the Change.gov Website and the new gentler version that has replaced it. Which brings me to:

Third, the new gentler version doesn’t actually mean the original “required” version isn’t accurate. The new version doesn’t say anywhere that community service won’t be required. It just no longer says that it will. In other words, it reintroduces the ambiguity that we’ve seen on this issue throughout the campaign.

So why does this kind of maneuvering make me queasy? Because it does away with accountability both in campaigning - which is irrelevant now but will be important in four years - and in governing. In campaigning, an opponent cannot make a charge against Obama stick. If that opponent says, “Obama is going to require community service,” Obama can reply, “You are misrepresenting my position. I simply want to encourage students to participate.” On the other hand, if that opponent says, “Obama is going to give schools money to develop community service programs but the schools can simply take the money and do nothing,” Obama can say, “A typical Republican smear. I make it perfectly clear community service is expected from schools in return for Federal funding.” (No wonder Obama was afraid of those ten town-hall meetings. The more time he spends talking without a script the harder it is for him to get away with this sort of “nuance”. An answer he gives in Dayton in July can be used against him if attempts the opposite answer in Pittsburgh in August.)

More crucially, such maneuvering will make it almost impossible to hold President Obama accountable for what candidate Obama promised. If four years from now eleven-year olds are still playing video games rather than picking up trash in parks, Obama can tell voters who are disappointed that he only promised to encourage community service and it’s not his fault that American children didn’t answer his call. On the other hand, if Obama marches fifth graders off to help with ACORN voter registration drives he can tell those who object that he said he was going to do just that before he was elected.

No wonder everyone who supports Obama can see exactly what they need to see when they look at him. And no wonder I feel queasy from time to time.

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