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Obama's Call to Service Meets the Economic Meltdown

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On Monday afternoon I got a blast email from the Obama campaign. I immediately wondered what I was going to be asked to do: Donate to the Franken campaign? Make calls for Jim Martin down in Georgia?

It turned out to be neither. The campaign was letting me know that barackobama.com was directing visitors to volunteer for -- or donate to -- relief efforts to aid the victims of the Southern California fires.

"Throughout the campaign," said the email, "we saw time and again that when ordinary people act together, they can make a huge difference."

Obama's high-tech outreach has been instrumental in getting people across the country to donate millions of dollars and contribute millions of hours working on the campaign. Will it now become a hub for civic action?

Obama has always said that a call to service would be "a central cause" of his presidency. "We will ask Americans to serve," he said in a signature speech in July. "We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing challenges."

Clearly, those challenges have never been more pressing in our lifetime. As unemployment hits a 14 year high -- and heading higher -- layoffs mount, foreclosures stack up, and local governments throughout America gird themselves for a coming wave of service cutbacks and hospital closures, we have metaphorical fires burning all across the country. Fires that threaten to turn into a social conflagration.

In the past, Americans could look to the safety net of social programs put in place by FDR during the Great Depression to mitigate the effects of an economic downturn. But, as Steven Greenhouse documented in Sunday's New York Times, the U.S. has become a "far different place" since the recession of the early '80s: unemployment insurance is less generous, welfare has been scaled back, as have job training and housing programs.

These holes in the social safety net make a commitment to service even more urgent. This is a moment where it isn't enough to look to the government; it's a moment where we need to look to each other -- and to ourselves.

Obama clearly understands this. "In America," he has said, "each of us is free to seek our own dreams, but we must also serve a common purpose, a higher purpose... Because, when it comes to the challenges we face, the American people are not the problem -- they are the answer."

This statement speaks volumes about Obama's belief that "government depends not just on the consent of the governed, but on the service of citizens."

We've seen the American people rise to the call of service time and again in times of national tragedy -- witness the outpouring of money and volunteerism in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 9/11 attacks. After 9/11, Americans showed they were eager to work for the common good, to be called to that higher purpose. It was the best of times amidst the worst of times.

And people's willingness to be "the answer" has been on display again in the torrent of volunteers stepping forward in response to the Southern California fires.

"I'm not super-heroic," volunteer Paul Prunty told the Los Angeles Times. "But I know it's not up to anybody else to make the world a better place; it's up to me." "We are them," a Red Cross volunteer said of the fire's victims. "And they are us."

So Obama doesn't need to convince the American people of the value of service; his challenge is finding a way to direct that national impulse into an ongoing effort to deal with the dark days that unquestionably lie ahead.

This will take more than soaring rhetoric and online calls to action. Every president pays lip service to service. Even President Bush, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, declared: "We have much to do, and much to ask of the American people." A month later he echoed the theme, saying simply: "America is sacrifice." Of course, the sum total of that sacrifice turned out to be shopping, going to Disney World, and offering tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.

Obama must turn his words into action and follow through on his promise to emulate FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, JFK's Peace Corps, and LBJ's Vista.

The president-elect plainly has the right vision for the role that service can -- and must -- play in addressing the urgent needs our country faces. Especially among the nation's young people who were so galvanized by his campaign, but who will now find it increasingly hard to get a job or to be able to afford to stay in school.

There are, of course, some on the political fringes already mounting their pushback, as Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia did, comparing Obama's call for national service to "what Hitler did in Nazi Germany" and "what the Soviet Union did." Jonah Goldberg likened it to "slavery" (of course, Goldberg's latest advice on dealing with the financial meltdown is for Obama to do nothing).

Perhaps one good thing that will come out of the hard times will be a collective willingness to ignore such bleating -- and to do what so clearly needs to be done to ameliorate the human suffering those hard times have brought.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

And the consequences of the crisis are not just economic -- they're also psychological. In his latest column, David Brooks paints a gloomy picture of the coming psychic toll he predicts will envelop what he calls the "formerly middle class." It's a toll that would be greatly lessened if those heading for "a perilous psychological spiral" would look outside themselves and, at the same time they are trying to improve their diminished circumstances, find ways to serve others even less fortunate -- bringing both perspective and meaning to their lives.

"The ultimate measure of a man or woman," said Martin Luther King, "is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

By reminding us that "our destiny as Americans is tied up with one another," Obama has the chance to do more than put out the economic fires burning all around us. He has the chance to help reconnect us to the ideals of America's founding.

From the beginning, America has been dedicated to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But, for our founders, the happiness that was to be pursued was not the buzz of a shopping-spree high. It was the happiness of the Book of Proverbs: "Happy is he that has mercy on the poor." It was the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good.

If Obama can inspire us to include service to others on our to-do list and, in the process, redefine the way Americans view the pursuit of happiness, his will truly be a transformational presidency.

If you are going to be in the St. Louis area, I will be speaking at Maryville University on Tuesday, November 25th.