Candidates stress need to restore faith in government

The presidential hopefuls greet during a forum at Columbia University on Thursday. The presidential hopefuls greet during a forum at Columbia University on Thursday. AP/Stephan Savoia
During a service-focused forum on Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic rival Barack Obama agreed on the need to revitalize the federal government's image.

The 2001 attacks motivated government leaders to work together and generated support for a massive overhaul of federal agencies, McCain said. He encouraged a return to that type of collaboration.

"We presided over the biggest reorganization of government since the creation of the Defense Department, in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security," McCain said. "We did do a lot of things right after 9/11. But it gradually eroded and now I think the American people are ready. They're ready to rally behind -- frankly, a new page to be turned in America's history."

The Arizona senator said government must fulfill its primary role of protecting citizens and helping them in times of emergency and distress, but it should not "do things that the private sector can do, or other organizations can do." After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, federal officials should have worked more closely with faith-based groups and volunteer organizations that played a prominent role in the recovery effort, and with corporations such as FedEx and Target that "know where everything is," he said.

Obama expressed a similar view on government's place in responding to disasters such as Sept. 11 and Katrina. The Illinois senator noted, however, that a stronger federal effort would not "crowd out" religious or nonprofit groups.

"There are more than enough problems out there to deal with," he said. "And what is true is we don't need to set up bureaucracy. See, I would distinguish between a government … providing people avenues for service and a government bureaucracy in which the notion is that the only way you can serve is through some defined government program."

Shoring up faith in the effectiveness of Washington institutions such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency is critical to making public service more attractive, Obama said.

"The domination of special interests, the domination of lobbyists, the loss of a civic culture in Washington among public [servants] has led not only to well-known disasters, like the mismanagement of the Katrina situation, but quiet disasters, where you've got entire agencies that have been hollowed out and you've got political appointees who aren't concerned with the mission of those organizations," Obama said. "So we've got to transform Washington and we've got to do some house cleaning… part of my job, I think, as president, is to make government cool again."

McCain also stressed the importance of confidence. "If people don't trust the government, then they're not going to be as eager and willing to frankly be part of these programs that we are proposing and that we are hoping that people will volunteer and serve in," he said.

Both candidates expressed concern over military recruitment and retention. McCain said additional incentives likely would be necessary to expand the military fast enough to meet the country's needs. And while touting the patriotism of those who served and the importance of his own military experience, he dismissed the idea of any mandatory military or civilian service requirement.

"There are so many ways to serve this country and there are so many ways that are noble and wonderful, both at home and abroad," McCain said. "I think it's very clear AmeriCorps has been one of the astonishing successes. Peace Corps, we've seen the success for a long time, because Jack Kennedy obviously originated it. But we have seen these volunteer organizations succeed."

Obama agreed that increasing military pay sends an important message of support, but he also said the military needs more civilian support.

"Our military is the best in the world, but they are asked to do so many different things because our civilian operations, our State Department, [the U.S. Agency for International Development] have been underfunded, have atrophied," Obama said. "And for us to say, serve in the military, but if that's not where you want to serve, learn a foreign language and go into the Foreign Service. And by the way, we will deploy you in some difficult areas, but that's part of what it means to be an American and to serve and to sacrifice."

With more civilian employees being deployed into dangerous areas, the government should reconsider the kind of benefits those employees and their families are receiving, Obama said. "We have a special obligation for those who have put their lives at risk, who are risking life and limb on behalf of the security of America," he said.

Both candidates pledged that, if elected, they would sign bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to encourage national service and, among other goals, triple the size of AmericCorps.

McCain perhaps facetiously agreed to make Obama his "service czar," and Obama quipped, "If this is the deal he wants to make right now I am committed to appointing him to my Cabinet of National Service."

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