When Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office as president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, it will be exactly 56 years since 17 of the most remembered words in presidential oratory were spoken.
John F. Kennedy, in his presidential inauguration address on Jan. 20, 1961, challenged his fellow Americans to: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
The words seem older than that half century plus six years; they sound alien, as though spoken in a foreign language, in the political atmosphere that abides now in the nation and resulted in the remarkable 2016 presidential election outcome.
Trump’s victory can be seen as a strident call by aggrieved voters for their country to do more for them.
Citizens of a democracy have every right to demand that their government act in ways that help them make their lives better, and this certainly includes enacting policies that address economic anxiety.
And yet for a country to claim to be great—whether that be “great again,” in Trump’s words, or “still great,” as Hillary Clinton put it—there has to be something in its character more noble than a what’s-in-it-for-me outlook.
That noble element of the American character surely exists among its young citizens. It is the responsibility of the nation’s leaders, most of all its president, to inspire national service as an expectation of citizenship and to ensure that opportunities for that service, along with appropriate incentives and rewards, are available for all who are willing to serve their country as volunteers.
National service opportunities exist in the military services, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. The latter, which organizes volunteers to work on projects dealing with domestic needs, requires a major expansion. It currently has slots for only 75,000 volunteers. That should increase many fold, as should the college scholarships provided for those who serve.
A promising idea for further expanding opportunities for national service is to create a national service reserve and enlist millions of 18 to 30-year-old Americans into its ranks. Members would be trained in many skills and could be called on by state and local leaders to serve when a need arises, say in the aftermath of a national disaster.
It would be a long shot to expect President Trump to issue an inspirational call in his inaugural speech for volunteer service to help make America great again. There is no record of Trump having performed any sort of public service as he pursued fortunes as a real estate mogul and reality TV star. What’s more, he might find the concept of a national service reserve unappealing because it’s Hillary Clinton’s idea.
Still, the awesome dimension of the presidency has inspired a broader understanding of America’s responsibilities in unlikely subjects before.
Dare we hope that the election winner who made many promises to those who asked what their country could do for them will ask for something for the country in return?