Democratic presidential candidate sneaks into Ann Arbor late at night for what is supposed to be a quick night in a local hotel between campaign events. Adoring fans — eager to get some of the presidential attention and hear the man of the hour speak — salivate at the news he even set foot in town. He didn’t intend to give a speech, but candidate makes the most of the opportunity, seizing the moment to challenge his listeners in an impromptu speech to change the world with one big idea.
No, that’s not the story of Barack Obama’s top-secret stay in Ann Arbor Sunday night at the Courtyard by Marriott and his early morning workout Monday at Bally Total Fitness. It’s the story of John F. Kennedy’s 2 a.m. speech on the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960. Kennedy went on to win that election, but more importantly, that night he challenged the roughly 5,000 students who turned out to join what would later become the Peace Corps.
That night, he said, “I come here tonight to go to bed, but I also come here tonight to ask you to join in the effort.” It’s no wonder that, almost five decades later, the University still ranks among the top five schools with students serving in the Peace Corps after graduation.
Obama should have made the same plea. He missed an opportunity. But with plenty of time left before Nov. 4, he should return to campus. And, like Kennedy, he should bring with him a challenging, seemingly unrealistic big idea — something that will put his legions of young supporters to work changing this country if he wins. We’re the Teach for America generation — give us the framework and put us to work.
So here are a few suggestions to kickstart the thinking.
For starters, Obama should back up his plan to completely wean the United States off foreign oil in the next 10 years with more than just money. An adaption of Al Gore’s challenge to replace all of our electricity generated by fossil fuels with electricity generated by wind, solar and geothermal power in the next 10 years, Obama promised at the Democratic National Convention to put $150 billion behind the effort.
He’ll need people to invent new technology, build it and make it work in people’s lifestyles. Effort will be more important than anything else. Students and young people would be perfect for that, and involving them would shape their attitudes’ for the rest of their lives. That’s a sea change money can’t buy.
But money can provide young people with an incentive to get involved. It can help get them an education, too. Obama, who of all candidates should know the high cost of college and the incentive it creates to skip the public sector for the money of the private sector, could create the AmeriCorps on steroids. He could steal another policy idea from his former Democratic rival John Edwards, too: Pay for the first year of public college — tuition, books and fees — for more than 2 million students who work part-time in a service job and meet several other minimum requirements.
The same models could apply to other big ideas: eliminating urban poverty, creating broadband wireless Internet for everyone in this country, fixing all of our dilapidated bridges and roads, building a nation-wide mass transit system and replacing student loans with grants and scholarships.
Obama has widespread support among young people in this country, but he’s said little to translate his support into action. He needs to do that, and what better place to start than here. As Kennedy said in 1960: “Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”