National service and volunteerism is a top priority of both the President and the First Lady. A broad effort has been launched to promote this priority. We’ve seen this in the May 12th White House briefing, the August 10th and 27th art community conference calls, and now in a new effort by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, entitled iParticipate, that is encouraging broadcast media to infuse national service stories into their show plots. The First Lady has even created a video expressing the importance of national service.
All of these efforts are driving would-be volunteers to Serve.gov. The question is, for what purpose?
Encouraging volunteerism is a noble effort undertaken by every US President. However, this Administration’s national service outreach has led on multiple occasions to outright policy advocacy. I’ve shown this throughout my writing on the subject, with a primary focus on the National Endowment for the Arts. However, the Corporation for National and Community Service is playing an even bigger role in this White House effort, and I don’t think general volunteerism is the only goal in mind.
The national service initiative is being led by The Corporation for National and Community Service (The Corporation) and the White House Office of Public Engagement. On the now infamous August 10th conference call, Nell Abernathy of The Corporation introduced Buffy Wicks as the person who championed the art community’s involvement in the Obama election campaign as well as the person spearheading this national service initiative. Wicks, the Deputy Director of the Office of Public Engagement, explained the White House’s rationale for selecting service by stating, “part of my role [at the White House] is working on service, and so when we were thinking about how do we take a lot of this energy that’s out there, how do we translate folks who have just been engaged in electoral politics and engage them in really the process of governing, of being part of this administration in a little bit of a different way because politics is one thing and governing is something totally separate, we really saw service as the platform by which we can do that.”
The White House views service as a good way for those that have just been involved in electoral politics to stay active, and is driving them to Serve.gov to organize and manage them. Buffy Wicks didn’t state that national recovery was the rationale for encouraging partisans to serve. She conveyed that the White House was interested in transitioning partisans from the election cycle into the administration, and using “service” as the mechanism for this transition.
What made candidate Obama’s campaign so successful, in simplistic terms, was his grassroots volunteers and his brand messaging. Of course there was the mainstream media favoritism, the unpopularity of President Bush, his fundraising, and the 2008 Democratic Primary schedule that also played a role. However, these areas were either out of his control or fed by his volunteers and branding.
So it is safe to say that to stay in power, it is vital for his organization to keep these resources organized and active so that the machine retains its potency. There is no better federal agency than The Corporation to serve this purpose. The Corporation’s entire existence is to encourage volunteerism. It is also the nation’s largest grant provider supporting volunteering. And starting sometime this month, Congress will reconcile two bills that fund the Corporation’s expanded role, which includes tripling the number of volunteers to 250,000 and the creation of an ArtistCorps and MusicianCorps.
Volunteers were the backbone of Obama’s grassroots organization and artists were the ones that led his unofficial campaign branding. These two groups were both massive tools used by the Obama campaign. And a pivotal developer of that tool was Buffy Wicks, the same person “spearheading” the White House volunteerism initiative.
Wicks, a former labor movement and anti-Iraq war organizer, helped develop the Obama campaign’s national grassroots field strategy. Her goal was to have as many organizing teams on the ground as possible and to have an infrastructure to support the addition of new volunteers. She expressed this goal in a Camp Obama training session during the election when she stated, “If we had an organizing team in every precinct, we win this campaign. Like that’s it, end of story, we win this campaign.”
You get a feel for her national volunteer strategy through this Camp Obama video. Her grassroots and infrastructure goal is in the 36:45-40:10 segment.
The NEA and White House conference calls and The Corporation’s new iParticipate effort all drive traffic to Serve.gov – a website that provides the infrastructure and mechanism for growth of volunteerism that looks a lot like what Wicks was advocating on the campaign trail. And Wicks, a political activist with a history of organizing people to take political action, is working with The Corporation on this effort.
By itself though, there is nothing nefarious about pushing volunteerism. However, there have been many warning signs that the White House is attempting to politicize national service.
The August 10th conference call is an obvious example. The call was partisan in nature, it led to policy advocacy, the Communications Director of the NEA resigned, the NEA issued a statement acknowledging inappropriate language, and the White House issued conduct guidelines to address the partisan “appearance” issues. The cover-ups and historical revisionism displayed by the White House, The Corporation, the NEA, and the moderator were troubling indicators of the calls intentions. Another example is the May 12th White House briefing, which also led to extreme policy advocating – but that meeting has yet to be fully vetted.
These partisan volunteer efforts along with the expansion of The Corporation are alarming signs. Through expanding the size and power of The Corporation, the Administration is in essence organizing and increasing the pool of resources that helped it acquire power.
But another event, on further review, adds to concern about the use of The Corporation.
On June 11th, President Obama controversially fired Gerald Walpin, Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The termination, possibly violating a watchdog protection law, was thought to be due in part to Walpin’s dogged persistence in pursuing the misuse of The Corporation’s funds by grant recipients, one of which was a big supporter of Obama, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. After a brief period, Johnson’s funding suspension by The Corporation was lifted, triggering Walpin to scold the agency’s board of directors for that decision. Walpin was later fired by the President with little explanation.
If Walpin’s funding misuse investigation showed the White House anything, it was that he was actually going to be a watchdog – a good quality in an Inspector General unless you don’t want the dog watching.
It is my hope that the mainstream media, along with Congress, begins to look into these White House volunteerism efforts with a bit more of a critical eye.
This new iParticipate initiative by the Entertainment Industry Foundation and The Corporation appears tame on review of the press release and website. But a memo uncovered by Big Hollywood shows that the TV networks are being encouraged by this initiative to infuse the issues of health, the environment, and energy into their storylines.
Such a close relationship between the government and the networks should leave many to wonder whether the networks are too close to the White House to be critical. And recent comments by Anita Dunn, White House Communications Director, attacking a legitimate news network seem designed as a preemptive strike to marginalize critical inquiry.
The free press needs to keep a critical eye, regardless of whether the White House likes a watchdog or not.