National service: Ben Smith (Politico) misses the story

by Walter Olson on November 10, 2008

He’s oh-so-dismissive of John Derbyshire for overreacting to an Obama national service plan that (in Smith’s words) “is, whatever its merits, voluntary”. His commenters pile on. Meanwhile, Smith completely misses the actual news of the day on the subject, namely that the Obama transition team’s Change.gov website flatly endorsed a mandatory, not voluntary plan, and then silently edited (and later yanked) its language when bloggers noticed. How misleading is it to describe Derbyshire as reacting to a voluntary plan when he was quite patently reacting to the sudden prospect of a mandatory one? And Andrew Sullivan was unfair and misleading in the same way.

Ben Smith writes for one of the hottest news operations around, which means he’s well situated to start digging for questions you’d think almost any reporter would want to ask about this episode: who drafted or approved the first version, the one that got edited before being yanked? Was it some staffer misinformed about the genuine thinking of the Obama team, which would make the later editing a relatively conventional (if covert) effort to correct a mistake? Or did the language reflect actual thinking that the Obama team has not yet seen fit to share with the public? I certainly hope it was the former and am by no means ready to jump to the latter conclusion. But wouldn’t it be nice if our press corps took an interest in shedding light on such questions? (& welcome Coyote readers).

{ 20 comments }

1 James 11.10.08 at 11:33 am

Can you make your case for the belief that the transition team “flatly endorsed a mandatory, not voluntary, plan”?

Their original language seemed entirely ambiguous to me. The only argument that made sense to me was that it might be possible to create a mandatory plan within the scope of that language.

Meanwhile, this was clearly a summary of Obama’s proposals on education, and was quickly updated to match those proposals. The transition web site has been posting, taking down, and revising language for days, often simply to remove language that talks about the contrast to McCain’s campaign proposals.

2 Walter Olson 11.10.08 at 11:44 am

Sorry, I really don’t detect any ambiguity about the phrasing that might require me to “make a case” about what was being flatly endorsed. For those who don’t wish to click over to the earlier thread, the phrasing at Change.gov was:

“Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.”

I think a “mistaken staffer” defense is more plausible than a “require doesn’t mean require” defense.

3 SPQR 11.10.08 at 11:53 am

Last I checked, “require” was not an ambiguous term. And isn’t the mistaken staffer defense getting a bit shop worn?

4 James 11.10.08 at 12:11 pm

I think the ambiguity is in whether students are required to do anything, or whether schools would simply be required to adopt the community service plan.

The plan, as described on Obama’s web site during the campaign, was clearly voluntary for students.

Meanwhile, the language “update” merely replaced the summary language with the exact language of the campaign web site. Not with anything new.

I’m sure we’ll simply differ on this, but to me, this seems like much ado about nothing but a hastily constructed web site.

5 Richard Nieporent 11.10.08 at 12:34 pm

James, are you looking for a job as the official apologist for the new Obama administration? If so, please get you story straight the first time. It doesn’t look good when you keep on coming up with new explanations for a statement that is not ambiguous to anyone but you.

6 James 11.10.08 at 12:53 pm

My story’s the same as it always was, Richard. If you don’t agree with me, fine, but I haven’t changed my explanation.

7 gitarcarver 11.10.08 at 1:05 pm

I think the ambiguity is in whether students are required to do anything, or whether schools would simply be required to adopt the community service plan.

“Simple be required….?” Isn’t that a tacit admission that the plan is “mandatory” under the Obama administration?

In the now locked thread, you dismissed the thought that there was no compensation for this “volunteering,” and then stated that those who do not volunteer will pay higher tuition costs. How is paying less than others if you “volunteer” not compensation?

Lastly, you still seem to be missing the thought that if the government is going to require “community service,” someone somewhere is going to have to decide what “service” is best for the community.

The example of abortion is a good one. There are those who will advocate that a community is better off without abortions due to higher long term medical costs. Others will say that the community is better off with abortions on demand. You dismissed this as a “political” argument without realizing that at their base level, almost all “community organizations” are have a political element to them.

Remember that Obama’s history is one of a “community organizer.” In being a community organizer, he tried to organize people for his vision of a better community and then used the numbers of people involved as a political hammer.

When the government tells you that you have to participate in a mandatory program, tells you what you have to do, and then tells you the causes you have to support, that is hardly “volunteerism.”

8 James 11.10.08 at 1:39 pm

“‘Simple be required….?’ Isn’t that a tacit admission that the plan is “mandatory” under the Obama administration?”

I think you misread my sentence. It’s “whether schools would simply be required ….” In other words, calling on schools to have community service programs, which wouldn’t be mandatory for the students.

“you dismissed the thought that there was no compensation for this “volunteering,” and then stated that those who do not volunteer will pay higher tuition costs. How is paying less than others if you “volunteer” not compensation?”

Like I said, I don’t believe it’s volunteering if you’re compensated for it.

We’re talking about community service, not volunteering, and I made the point that making tax breaks for education contingent in part on community service doesn’t mean you’re being paid the full amount *for* that service. Of course, you are receiving a benefit in part for the service, so I don’t believe it’s volunteering.

“you still seem to be missing the thought that if the government is going to require “community service,” someone somewhere is going to have to decide what “service” is best for the community”

Thanks, but I’m not missing that point. It’s one of several reasons why I oppose mandatory community service.

“You dismissed this as a “political” argument ….”

No, I didn’t. I dismissed concerns about people advocating for or against abortion as part of their community service, on the grounds that no one allows political advocacy to count for community service.

I didn’t ever suggest that community service organizations can’t have political implications, or that some people might not object to the nature of their work.

9 gitarcarver 11.10.08 at 2:03 pm

I think you misread my sentence. It’s “whether schools would simply be required ….” In other words, calling on schools to have community service programs, which wouldn’t be mandatory for the students.

Except that was not what was said on the website, nor was it a part of Obama’s campaign. His plan always called for individuals – not schools.

I didn’t ever suggest that community service organizations can’t have political implications, or that some people might not object to the nature of their work.

This seems contrary to “on the grounds that no one allows political advocacy to count for community service.”

Clearly Obama’s resume says otherwise.

10 James 11.10.08 at 2:16 pm

“Except that was not what was said on the website ….”

Except that the web site called for “developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.”

If you read that as only calling for requiring students to engage in community service, fine. To me, that could easily mean requiring schools to implement plans involving community service.

All I’m saying was that I read it as ambiguous. If you don’t, fine.

“… nor was it a part of Obama’s campaign. His plan always called for individuals – not schools.”

Well, his campaign plan called for schools to have programs for individual students to do community service. As for whether that plan would be required, his campaign called for it to be required neither for schools nor for students.

“This seems contrary to “on the grounds that no one allows political advocacy to count for community service.””

You’re confusing “political implications” with “political advocacy.”

This isn’t a semantic distinction. No one calls for community service to include advocating for a political position, on abortion or anything else.

Other other hand, many community service organizations–even church-run charities, for instance–have political implications.

“Clearly Obama’s resume says otherwise.”

Are you referring to his paid work as a community organizer? I think that’s quite different from doing unpaid community service, whether as a volunteer or as part of a mandatory service requirement.

11 Dusty L. 11.10.08 at 2:43 pm

Some schools already have “mandatory community service”. ( noted that it is about 50 hours that someone has to do within 4 years of high school ) And it’s up to the students to choose whatever they want to do for the community.

Personally i’m against it being mandatory, however I would greatly support it; If it was encouraged and voluntary.

I did notice that the people complaining the most about it on the internet, if it would be mandatory, are also the people that complain the most that “people expect to recieve stuff without doing anything for it”. (just a general observation, not specifically directed at anyone.)

12 gitarcarver 11.10.08 at 2:55 pm

All I’m saying was that I read it as ambiguous. If you don’t, fine.

That would be fine except that the website later clarified the program: “Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service…”

There is no mention of a required “school program” and once again, during the campaign Obama made it clear his plan was for citizens and not some mandatory requirement that schools have programs.

You’re confusing “political implications” with “political advocacy.”

Absolutely not. Even if I were, the types of community groups Obama wants are based on political advocacy. He is basing the model on his experiences which stood on political advocacy.

No one calls for community service to include advocating for a political position, on abortion or anything else.

Yet no one precludes them either. That is my point. If a person wants to serve their community by working for abortion or against it, they are serving the community. Period. You want to claim that such service would not be allowed under the definition of “community service,” yet that is the model Obama developed and advocates.

Are you referring to his paid work as a community organizer? I think that’s quite different from doing unpaid community service, whether as a volunteer or as part of a mandatory service requirement.

I am not equating his work as a “community organizer” as “community service.” He is. And no matter what, the fact that something is given back for this “community service” precludes any notion that it is “voluntary.” It is compensation for work being performed.

13 Todd Rogers 11.10.08 at 3:46 pm

You two kind of sound like a guy who once disputed the definition of “is.”

This boils down to three simple questions: one) Should the government mandate/impose public service on its citizens and two) how will and will not something qualify as “public service?” and three) who exactly are we talking about that should be doing this service?

Clear details from Pres-Elect Obama on this should relax this debate a little.

14 James 11.10.08 at 3:52 pm

“That would be fine except that the website later clarified the program ….”

Well, yes. I’m not sure how that’s evidence for either interpretation, since it merely clarifies that they were simply trying to summarize the original proposal, without mandatory service, all along. As you note, his proposal wasn’t for programs mandatory for schools, or mandatory for students.

Absolutely not.

Well, you said there was a contradiction between my statements about community service with political advocacy and with political implications. What was the contradiction, if you’re not confusing those two terms?

“I am not equating his work as a “community organizer” as “community service.” He is.”

I apologize. I must have missed when he equated those two things, in a way that means his resume shows how political advocacy counts as community service.

“the fact that something is given back for this “community service” precludes any notion that it is “voluntary.””

I agree completely that if anything is given back, it’s not volunteer work. It may, however, be voluntary.

15 James 11.10.08 at 4:34 pm

Todd’s right, this debate is silly.

How about we only continue if there’s anyone who disagrees with the core issues he identifies?

16 ginsocal 11.10.08 at 6:08 pm

The above argument misses the more important point (James): Why is the Federal Government involved in requiring this at all? It’s bad enough that they feel the need to unconstitutionally stick their unwelcome nose into what should be a local issue. To now require community service is beyond the pale. Thank God my son goes to a private school, what such BS is not part of the program.

17 ginsocal 11.10.08 at 6:09 pm

“where” Jeez…

18 James 11.10.08 at 6:46 pm

The above argument misses the more important point (James): Why is the Federal Government involved in requiring this at all?

I’m not sure why you’re invoking my name, ginsocal. We weren’t discussing the merits of having the federal government require school-based community service.

I think that’s because none of us would be in favor of it.

19 JJ 11.10.08 at 11:04 pm

The Federal Government would be involved. They are the ones proposing the requirement for all students, middle school-aged and up. To me, that’s the issue.

20 James 11.11.08 at 8:08 am

Well, yes. I think we all understand that.

It’s just that none of us support it, so there’s not much to discuss there. ;-)

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