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Bill Clinton celebrates 20 years of AmeriCorps, talks Islamic State strategy and midterm election outlook

In the 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the AmeriCorps National Service Program into existence, more than 900,000 participants have worked on service projects across the U.S. They've tutored kids, aided communities after disaster and fought hunger. The former president joins Judy Woodruff to discuss AmeriCorps, fighting the Islamic State, the Ukraine crisis and the midterm election.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    They celebrated at the White House today, 20 years after a landmark law that enshrined a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

    And the man who signed that law was on hand.

    With the stroke of his pen, President Bill Clinton made the AmeriCorps national service program a reality in 1993. A year later, the first class was officially sworn in.

    BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: Would you all raise your right hand and repeat after me? I will get things done for America.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In the 20 years since, more than 900,000 participants have spent in excess of 1.2 billion hours working on projects across the U.S. Today, that spirit of service was celebrated at the White House, as former President Clinton and hundreds of current and past AmeriCorps members joined President Obama to mark the anniversary.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    AmeriCorps has changed the life of our nation. And now it's up to us to make sure it continues, because we're not just here to celebrate what's already been achieved. We're here to rededicate ourselves to the work that lies ahead.

  • WOMAN:

    Please raise your right hand.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A new class of some 75,000 volunteers was sworn in today at the White House and around the country. Members must be at least 17 years old and commit to volunteer for a year or two in exchange for a modest living allowance, as well as an education stipend.

    Over the years, they have tutored and mentored children in underserved communities and helped rebuild after natural disasters. Volunteers have also worked to combat hunger and on environmental conservation projects.

    Matthew Little joined AmeriCorps shortly after its inception. He worked with the service organization City Year at an inner-city school in Boston.

  • MATTHEW LITTLE, Former AmeriCorps Volunteer:

    This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that people don't typically get to have. You get to serve your community. You get to serve the nation. And you get to serve these individuals. And it's just something that makes you a better person for having done it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But the program is not without its critics. Some Republicans have objected to giving a monetary incentive for civic service.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    At today's ceremony, former President Clinton called it a wonderful investment in America's future.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    AmeriCorps works because all of you who went before kept your promise to get things done. And I hope that Congress will on this occasion reconsider its opposition to his budget request and give us a chance to grow AmeriCorps some more.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I sat down with the former president this afternoon to talk about AmeriCorps and other matters.

    Former President Bill Clinton, thank you for talking with us.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As we just saw, you're celebrating the 20th anniversary today of AmeriCorps. You have said this is one of the proudest things you did as president of the United States.

    But from the very beginning, many Republicans have said, this is something that should be done in the nonprofit sector, the government shouldn't be funding it. It's been difficult to get it fully funded. Why do you think it's been so hard to get bipartisan buy-in?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Well, I think it violates their ideology.

    But if you think about it, it costs us less to hire an AmeriCorps person on basically a living stipend and give them college credit like the G.I. Bill than it does to pay a year's worth of unemployment. And every dollar we spend on AmeriCorps generates a dollar spent in a local community. Every dollar, according to an independent study, provides almost $4 worth of benefits.

    And every dollar spent that way saves governments, federal, state and local, more than $2 they would have to spend otherwise because of all the free labor. And the AmeriCorps people also — like Joplin — when the tornado hit Joplin, we sent AmeriCorps volunteers down there, and they were adept at generating and organizing large numbers of other volunteers, something not everybody knows how to do.

    It's just been a great thing. And, you know, we still have to fight it, but I guess we will just keep doing it. But President Bush supported it. And I appreciated that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    So we have had three presidents in a row that have really been in here for it.

    And I think, with 900,000 people having served in AmeriCorps now, I think it's part of the fabric of our national life.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But even some big supporters of the program have said that it's been harder than you had expected to get young people interested in this. Last year, there were half-a-million young people who applied, but that's out of 32 million in this 18-to-24 cohort. What do you — how do you explain that?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Well, first of all, they were applying for 75,000 slots. So they knew that there was — I mean, that's like trying to get in an Ivy League school. That's the first thing.

    Secondly, I think a lot of young people still don't know about it. And — but I believe, if we had 250,000 slots, which is what we wanted to have by 2017, I believe there would be millions of people applying for it.

    I'm amazed. I think whatever we can provide, the demand will exceed the supply of AmeriCorps slots.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    President Clinton, you're not only involved in AmeriCorps and all of its programs. The Clinton Global Initiative has now become a big annual happening in New York City. It's coming up in a few weeks.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Our 10th one.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you raise tens of millions of dollars every year for a variety of causes. Again, one of your major focuses this year is women and girls.

    In the wake of the Ray Rice incident and other domestic abuse incidents, and after all the education that's been done in this country on domestic abuse, why do you think that this is still such a problem in our country?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Oh, I think it's a problem around the world. You know, there was just a recent survey released sometime in the last couple of weeks by the U.N. I wish I could remember who did it.

    But the number of women and girls who have been physically and sexually abused, the percentage around the world is staggering and far greater than it is here. I think the reaction to the Rice incident shows that we're still moving on it here, but I don't know that you will ever eliminate it all, since an enormous amount of violence in every society is within the home, sadly, where people live in proximity and are under pressures and have lives that they don't show to the outside world.

    But I actually think America is making headway here. And it's a big issue to me. I have lived with it. And Hillary has spent a lifetime fighting against it. And it's a big issue.

    But I think what we would like to do primarily with the CGI is to keep trying to empower women and girls around the world, and to work against much more institutionalized violence against women and girls that exists all over the world.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let me turn you to some news of the week, the big story, President Obama's announcement of his plan to go after, in his words, to degrade and destroy the terrorist Islamic State group.

    How confident are you that this is going to be successful? And how long do you think it's going to take?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Well, this group, I think they can be degraded and eventually destroyed, if and only if the people they are abusing are willing to fight.

    In other words, the strategy he outlined, which I strongly agree with, requires us to use airpower and people on the ground to give training and support and intelligence and to bring in equipment they need, so it will be a fair fight.

    But, ever since Vietnam, we have learned that if the United States goes anywhere in the world to fight — I hate sports analogies, but, essentially, it's an away game. And we need to be backing a home team. And now, because of the changes in the Iraqi government, it appears that the Sunni tribal chiefs are once again, having been abused by ISIS, as they were by al-Qaida in Iraq, are willing to fight, and this time, looks like they're going to be involved in a more unified Iraqi government.

    The Peshmerga of the Kurds has fought. We need to keep them equipped, trained, full of intelligence and give them support, and I think they can win. But it's not going to be easy and it's not going to be quick.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I must ask you about Russia, Vladimir Putin. You know this man. His government, they have annexed Crimea. They now effectively control much of Eastern Ukraine. There have been sanctions, more sanctions announced today. They don't seem to faze him. Is the West helpless to stop his aggression?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    No. And I think they will faze him.

    Russia has — I'm trying to think of a delicate way to say this.

    The allocation of money and power in Russia is not as it is here. And there's no thing that resembles a free market, and there's a lot of politics in it. And that's going to be felt. But Putin controls the media. Russia doesn't have a free media.

    So, by the time they get through whipping everybody up, he can maintain popularity longer than he should. I think it's important to recognize Poroshenko is probably the best president Ukraine can have right now. He's a responsible, strong man. We need to make sure they have got equipment and other support.

    And they're not NATO members. We can't commit to put troops on the ground. We don't want a major war, but we ought to back them and protect as much as we can and support them as much as we can.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Question about American politics.

    You have been all over the country. You are going to continue to go all over the country campaigning for Democrats. You and Secretary Clinton are going to be in Iowa this weekend. Despite that, all the experts are saying Republicans are going to take over control of the Senate this fall, including in your home state of Arkansas. What's your assessment?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Can't tell you — in Arkansas, it is a question of whether the Democrats can get over their primary disability as a political party, which is that we can produce votes in a presidential race we can't produce in a midterm race.

    Mark Pryor would win, I think, a substantial victory in Arkansas, and I believe Mike Ross would be elected governor in Arkansas if we just had a normal turnout of African-American, Hispanic and other voters. We have too many — and lower-income white voters. We have too many of our voters in state after state after state where that's the case.

    So, I don't know what's going to happen yet, but I'm going to get caught trying to help all over the country.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, you're not going to predict the Democrats…

  • BILL CLINTON:

    I think we have a slightly better than 50 percent chance to hold the Congress. I still think we got a chance to win in Georgia and Kentucky.

    We're now competitive in Kansas. And we have to, I think — I think we have got a great chance to win in North Carolina. I think we're now going to hold Michigan. And I believe we will win in Iowa. And I think Mark and Mary Landrieu will win, so I'm not — I'm not with the skeptics. I think we're going to do better than people think.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    President Bill Clinton, we thank you very much for talking with us.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Thank you, Judy.

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