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Laurence Leamer

Laurence Leamer

Posted February 26, 2009 | 12:25 PM (EST)

Obama's Omission was a Willful Choice


When I listened to President Obama's powerful address before Congress, I kept waiting for him to talk about his pledge to double the size of the Peace Corps. But he said nothing. The president is a brilliant man with an extraordinary sense of detail. His omission was clearly a willful choice. I say this in part because the continuing resolution for the 2009 fiscal year budgets $340 million for the Peace Corps, only $9 million more than for the current fiscal year. At best that will leave the organization standing in place.

The Save America Act cosponsored by Senators Kennedy and Hatch increases the domestic AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 volunteers, but there is nothing in that legislation for the Peace Corps. That is tragically wrong. We can't merely succor our kin and shut our concerns off to the rest of the world. It's insulting and isolationist to increase domestic volunteers so dramatically and to turn away from the world outside our borders.

Along side the needs of the foreclosed, the dispossessed, the unemployed and the uninsured sick, the Peace Corps may not seem a matter of much concern, but it is of transcendent importance. At this moment in America, we must reach out for what is good within our people and our values to the rest of the world. We can't hunker down avoiding the world in which we live.

I do not believe that this former community organizer has turned his back not only on the Peace Corps but on the best, the noblest part of himself. The reality Obama faces is that in a desperate time for our states and communities there is a built-in constituency for the tripling of domestic volunteers but few ready to stand up for those who carry American ideals to the rest of the world.

When Obama's aides approached the Peace Corps in Washington they faced a tired bureaucracy full of many careerists with the idealism and energy of clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles. They have a hard enough time keeping up and many in the leadership did not even halfheartedly pursue expanding the Peace Corps. It was too difficult. That there are 17 new countries seeking volunteers adding to the 74 countries who already have them made no difference. That there is no room for thousands of eminently qualified applicants made no difference. The can-not-do attitude prevails. And thus for the new administration in the midst of crisis it was expedient to put the whole business on hold and to slide past the whole matter in the president's address before Congress.

In the early sixties, a Bolivian minister told Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps, "The Peace Corps is your punta de lanza--the point of your lance." The Peace Corps is not only America's most vital symbol of its commitment to the rest of the world, but it is a hands-on witness of our concern. We can not build a truly progressive foreign policy without a revitalized, enlarged Peace Corps.

The point has grown dull and rusty. It must be sharpened and enlarged. The Peace Corps has to be radically revamped, and the Americans who head out to Asian, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America must be trained in new, dynamic ways for a new world of challenge and change.

The first task is to find a new director worthy of a new Peace Corps who will passionately and energetically push for an expanded force of Volunteers. That means no out-of-work politician desperate for a sinecure, no shrewd Washington apparatchik looking for a seat in the administration. It means somebody who has worked in a volunteer-like setting and someone astute about the world of politics and social change. The perfect candidate is Barack Obama,but he is otherwise occupied.