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Service After Service Day

“Practice what you preach” is a cliché -- and wise counsel. Barack Obama will be talking a great deal about service and sacrifice throughout his presidency. And so today, he broke from the balls and parties and concerts to roll paint on walls and furniture at a District shelter for homeless teenagers.

He also visited injured troops at Walter Reed Medical Center, while Michelle Obama and Jill and Joe Biden joined volunteers at RFK Stadium assembling care packages for U.S. troops posted in Iraq and Afghanistan. The incoming vice president, as is his wont, happily hugged everyone in sight.

Asking Americans to give something of themselves to their communities and their country is the right message to send on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside," King declared in 1967, "But that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

For King, the calls for brotherhood and the calls for structural change were consistent and complimentary. Just waiting for the repaving of the Jericho Road is not an option. Declaring individual acts of charity and compassion meaningless, because only structural change will alleviate poverty, is an evasion. Service matters.

But what happens after this day matters, too.

“Volunteerism” is more complicated than people simply deciding to offer a single day of service or a few hours here and there, even though such acts should be welcomed. Structures have to be created to allow volunteers to be efficient. Americans who want to give a year or more of their lives to serving their communities need support, and they need opportunities to use their time well.

That’s why it will be important to expand AmeriCorps and other forms of service, as Obama promised in his campaign. The economic stimulus package provides an opportunity for this expansion. A time when jobs are getting scarcer is an ideal moment to encourage citizens to serve. Social needs are greater, and young Americans especially may find this an ideal moment in their lives to give back to their country.

Obama's visit to Walter Reed also needs to be backed up with action. We need to make a real commitment to our veterans and to our men and women in uniform. Obama sent the right signal with his visit. It places an obligation on him to do more.

I am not in the least bit cynical about Obama’s service moment. On the contrary, he should be cheered for using some of his time as he did today to send a powerful message. But we can’t leave matters there. Mutual responsibility means both taking responsibility for ourselves and looking out for each other. It’s an idea that the new president will have to reinforce with words and with actions.

By E.J. Dionne  | January 19, 2009; 2:07 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Barack Obama is the greatest liar in history (no wonder he is an excellent lawyer!) During his campaign, he told lots of hope in future for America if he was elected, but now he warns Americans of oncoming darker economy and not to put too much hope in his promises. He promises a big plan to reduce budget deficit but his inauguration ceremony this January will be the most costly in history (50 millions) while the nation is in deep depression, as well as his presidential campaign (600 millions), which was far more than his opponent John McCain's. He swears to clean up Washington DC, but he failed to first clean up his homestate Illinois, one of the most corrupt state with the scandal of Governor Rod Blagojevich, who greatly helped Obama to win his state senate seat in 1996, 1998, and 2002. And his favorite slogan is "Yes, we CAN", yet he himself CANNOT quit smoking at all !!!

Posted by: TIMNGUYEN1 | January 19, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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