I don’t know how many of you share my fury at this sort of thing, but the lead editorial in today’s New York Times epitomizes the tendency of the press to try to find a way to blame on Barack Obama for policy outcomes over which he has little or no control. In this case, the complaint is that AmeriCorps, the national service program that Bill Clinton started and Obama championed during the 2008 campaign, has failed to grow to the size authorized by a bipartisan bill Obama signed in 2009.
This is surely a lamentable state of affairs. But who, exactly, is responsible? The Times blames “Washington disfunction” but mostly singles out Obama:
During his first run for the White House, President Obama spoke many times about his commitment to expanding AmeriCorps and other national service programs. “This will be a cause of my presidency,” he pledged. In 2009, amid much fanfare, he signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, named for the senator who was its foremost champion. The law was passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and it called for increasing AmeriCorps positions in stages to 250,000 by 2017. Yet in the five years since, the authorized ramp-up has not occurred.
Instead of giving more people the opportunity to serve, AmeriCorps’ growth has become yet another victim of Washington’s dysfunction, weak leadership and the disintegration of bipartisanship for the public good. The gap between the yearly targets for AmeriCorps positions set in the act and the actual number of AmeriCorps participants has grown wider with each passing year. This year, fewer than 80,000 positions were funded; the goal is 200,000.
Despite Mr. Obama’s eloquence about national service, his annual budget proposals have requested much less than would be required to come close to reaching the Serve America Act’s benchmarks. Scant effort has been made to push for more.
This is the familiar progressive case against Obama: he made big promises but failed to deliver because he didn’t fight hard enough (the editorial’s headline “Broken Promises on National Service” drives home the point). Having laid the problem largely on the president, the editorial then includes, almost as an afterthought, this sentence:
And of course, the Republican-controlled House now routinely passes budget resolutions that would eliminate AmeriCorps, as well as the Corporation for National and Community Service that oversees the program.
But that fact–the GOP jihad against AmeriCorps–is pretty much the entirety of the reason why AmeriCorps’ budget hasn’t grown bigger. As national service expert Melissa Bass of the University of Mississippi explained in the Washington Monthly, the only reason funding for AmeriCorps has been stalled is that congressional Republicans who originally supported the 2009 law got spooked by the Tea Party and did a 180:
Almost half of Senate Republicans (twenty of forty-one) voted for the measure, as did seventy House Republicans. This show of bipartisan support was as rare as it was timely. By more than tripling the number of AmeriCorps slots, the new law would give young people frozen out of the job market by high unemployment rates a chance to serve their country and communities at precisely the time when social needs are at their greatest.
Yet less than two years later, in February 2011, the GOP-controlled House voted to eliminate funding for AmeriCorps entirely. Sixty of the Republicans who voted to end the program had, two years earlier, elected to triple its size.
Given this unprincipled GOP obstruction, what basis is there to believe, as the Times apparently wants us to, that if only the president had fought harder and demanded bigger budget increases for AmeriCorps he would have gotten them? None that I can think of. In fact, we should be thankful that the administration has somehow managed to preserve the program’s funding at 80,000 annual members–which, by the way, is 30,000 more than before 2009, an increase the Times doesn’t bother to mention.