COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Calling public service "the essence of our liberty," President Barack Obama on Friday urged Americans to step up and volunteer in their communities.
Speaking at a community service forum in Texas, Obama said there's only so much government can do in tackling the nation's problems. He said government can build the best schools, but it can't run the PTA. It can buy the armed forces the best equipment, he said, but it can't give a home-cooked meal to a military family stretched thin.
"The need for action always exceeds the limits of government," Obama said. "While there's plenty that government can and must do ... there's a lot that government can't and shouldn't do and that's where active, engaged citizens come in."
The event was hosted by former President George H.W. Bush at Texas A&M University. Bush was the first president to create a permanent White House office dedicated to promoting volunteerism.
The forum was affiliated with the Points of Light Institute, which honors people and groups who participate in community service.
Bush first spoke of the "thousand points of light" in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican convention, using it as a metaphor for all the things Americans do, individually and in groups, to help fellow citizens. He created the Daily Point of Light Award in 1989 to honor volunteers. Friday's event honored the 20th anniversary of his volunteer movement.
In recognizing that initiative, Obama said Bush "didn't call for one blinding light to shine from Washington, but for a vast galaxy of people and institutions to solve problems in their own backyards."
The president said he's optimistic about the future, despite the recession and security threats, because young Americans today are more engaged in service activities than any generation in decades.
"In the end, service binds us to each other and to our community and to our country in a way that nothing else can," he said.
Obama, a Democrat, initiated a "United We Serve" call to service in June that culminated in a national day of service on the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Our 44th president is absolutely right," Bush said as he was introducing Obama. "There isn't a more important time than now for us all to get involved."
Obama cited Bush's long record of public service, which began as a young fighter pilot in World War II. He said Bush's "life of service is an inspiration to all of us."
Several hundred protesters gathered outside the auditorium where Bush and Obama spoke. Bush had said the event was not political, but the protesters gave speeches criticizing Obama's efforts to revamp health care. Many of the protesters were from anti-tax Tea Party groups that bused in members from around the state.