As a candidate, Obama praised the program as a cornerstone of American soft power and pledged to double the number of volunteers by 2011. Online applications in the days surrounding Obama's inauguration tripled from the year before, and applications overall rose 12 percent in the first six months of 2009.
But as the Peace Corps nears its 50th anniversary, lawmakers, former volunteers and the agency's founding fathers are grappling over the budget and where President Kennedy's brainchild goes from here.
As president, Obama has requested just a 10 percent budget increase for the agency, from $340 million to $373 million. While that would still be the biggest boost since 1993, it won't come close to bankrolling the kind of rapid expansion Obama pledged during the campaign.
The House Appropriations Committee and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., (who volunteered in the Dominican Republic in the late-1960s) want to allocate even more. But they've run up against Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who controls the purse strings as chairman of a key Senate Appropriations subcommittee and is balking at any further increase.
As an adviser to Kennedy, Harris Wofford helped craft and launch in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. Now the former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania has come out swinging on the agency's behalf.
"The budget from the Senate committee is likely to mean no real expansion of the Peace Corps," says Wofford, who also advised Obama on his service policy during the campaign.
The funding tug-of-war has prompted the agency's critics to speak out as well. They say the Peace Corps needs to rechart its course before Congress commits millions more. More money for the Peace Corps means less money for other aid programs, and Leahy has rejected the House's and Dodd's calls for a $450 million outlay in part because he's not sure it gives the government the most bang for its buck abroad.
"At a time of intense pressures on a limited budget, each volunteer costs the U.S. government $50,000 a year," read a budget report from Leahy's Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. "Each dose of vaccine for measles, which threatens hundreds of millions of children in poor countries and needlessly kills 200,000 children annually, costs a few dollars."
As Congress tries to run a cost-benefit analysis, a frequent knock on the program has resurfaced: that it parachutes inexperienced volunteers (average age: 27) into demanding jobs teaching English, boosting agricultural output and raising awareness about HIV/AIDS for which they may not be prepared. Robert Strauss, a former country director for Cameroon, has bemoaned that volunteers are often at best a "curiosity, an amusement" in their host villages. Before more volunteers are sent, he says, he wants better screening processes and more administrative support for existing field workers.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to the organization trying to do too much with too little personnel," he said.
Even some ardent Peace Corps supporters want to retool the agency's mission. Some observers believe that too many volunteers are sent to countries like Cape Verde, Vanuatu and Fiji, which have little strategic importance for the United States. Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., who has lobbied Leahy to support the House's $450 million budget line, envisions the Peace Corps as an arrow in America's "smart power" quiver and wants a bigger Peace Corps footprint in the Muslim world.
"Volunteers are needed in more strategic countries in the world, which is why I have urged for more volunteers in countries like Indonesia," Bond said.
But while a quarter of Peace Corps volunteers are serving in Muslim-majority countries, just two of those host nations (Jordan and Morocco) are in the Arab world. And the list of potential Middle Eastern countries where the Peace Corps could open up new franchises is short, given the region's politics and the agency's obsession with safety (volunteers in Uganda, for example, are forbidden from riding the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis).
Not everyone agrees with Bond's plan. Wofford said any conception of the Peace Corps as a vehicle for small-scale American diplomacy in geopolitical hot spots is a departure from Kennedy's vision.
"I know the 'smart power' idea is really appealing to members of Congress," he said. "But the warning Dean Rusk and Sargent Shriver and Kennedy made in various statements is that you don't want the Peace Corps to be seen as an instrument of American foreign policy."
The program and its 200,000 alums can get defensive when the agency comes under fire. When Strauss penned an op-ed titled "Too Many Innocents Abroad" in the New York Times that argued for a contraction, not an expansion, former volunteers deluged the paper with letters to the editor.
"There's a mythology around the Peace Corps, and some people have this idea that the program was an immaculate conception and that things should never change," he said. "No one from Peace Corps has ever solicited me for information or ideas, and I think I'm still viewed as an enemy of the organization."
One thing everyone agrees on is that strong leadership from Aaron Williams, who was confirmed last week as the new Peace Corps administrator, is badly needed. Williams, who served in the Dominican Republic in the late-1960s, has gotten positive reviews from lawmakers and Peace Corps boosters so far.
"I think Aaron Williams is going to be one of the great Peace Corps directors, in the mold of Shriver and Loret Ruppe," said Wofford, who still regrets that the agency never fulfilled Kennedy's dream of sending 100,000 volunteers a year overseas. "It's somewhat like a bicycle: If you're not moving, it's hard to change direction."