In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush stood as a poised, confident leader, sharing in the collective grief of the nation and issuing stern threats to those who dared attack it. Calculated as his speeches might have been, they carried an infectious air of hope, an honest belief that Americans have the potential to rise from the depth of tragedy and build a better future.
For many of us, the prospects for reinvigorating ideals of service and citizenship seemed boundless. Rarely had so many Americans seemed so devoted to helping others and improving the character of our country. Asked how ordinary citizens could contribute, the president outlined an initiative called “Communities of Character,” which would “spark a rebirth of citizenship, character and service.” For the true optimists among us, these words suggested the possibility of a Kennedy-esque return to civic engagement with government and the expectation that Americans could actively partake in bettering the country.
What fools we were.
Nearly five years later, the Communities in Character initiative lies dormant, the president’s approval ratings are at all-time lows, and any notion that post-Sept. 11 engagement sparked a rebirth in American service is simply laughable. Using the words “missed opportunity” to describe this lack of a plan for increased citizenship has become redundant. Perhaps the key to understanding the depth of this administration’s failure is examining the organization that actively works to promote service nationwide – Americorps.
Created in 1994 as an umbrella organization for previous national service initiatives, Americorps constitutes the most comprehensive effort in recent history to increase service across the country. Involved with more than 3,000 nonprofits and public agencies, the organization has attempted to build an unprecedented level of direct action on issues of poverty, housing, education and the environment. Through (somewhat) bipartisan support and funding, Americorps has drawn in more than 400,000 participants since its inception, and demand for membership has remained high into 2006.
Unfortunately, Americorps’s quiet success seems to be overshadowed by clear evidence of its limitations within the current political climate. President Bush repeatedly articulated his support for the organization in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, praising it as evidence of American’s dedication improving our country and helping others in need. In his 2002 State of the Union address, he pledged to use an initiative called “USA Freedom Corps” to expand and increase funding for Americorps and like-minded groups across the country.
Discounting the political lip service, however, the president’s treatment of the organization suggests a fundamental unwillingness to follow through with an ideal he pledges to stand for. In recent years, he has only sparingly stood up for the interests and growth of the organization, only allowing for the maintenance of its current budget when he receives adequate pressure to do so. Most tellingly, this year the administration proposed a $22-million cut from Americorps’s civilian program, adding that in the long run, it hopes to shut down this sector or the organization altogether.
Robert Gordon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who helped draft the original Americorps legislation, argues that despite its popularity, the organization has been unable to reach its full potential. As he told me, they “thought it would be an excellent initiative that would build into a national movement, but I think at this point it’s an excellent initiative that’s an excellent initiative.” Looking to the reasons behind this stagnation, Gordon suggests an inherent contradiction between the idealistic rhetoric of freedom and liberty put forth by current leaders and the actuality of their realization. “Freedom isn’t just something that government gives out – freedom is something that Americans create through their service and their commitments.”
With a majority of his political capital long since evaporated, Bush now consistently finds himself occupying his time with half-hearted attempts to justify the follies of his administration. Having long held the notion of freedom to be a potential legacy of his time in office, he has been undone by a particular naivet