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Obama, George H.W. Bush unite to support volunteerism

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Obama speaks at forum hosted by ex-President George H.W. Bush.
  • NEW: 44th president praises 41st for "thousand points of light" ethic
  • NEW: Obama: It "changed lives across this country," including Michelle Obama's
  • Obama: "You'll be sorely disappointed" expecting government to solve all problems
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(CNN) -- Some issues, it seems, still transcend America's increasingly bitter partisan divide.

Ex-President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates smile during Obama's speech Friday.

President Obama attended a community service forum at Texas A&M University on Friday hosted by one of his Republican predecessors, former President George H.W. Bush.

Obama took the opportunity to emphasize that, regardless of partisan politics, the government can only do so much with the challenges facing Americans.

"We face threats to our health, our climate and, of course, our security that have left many of our young people wondering what kind of future they will be leaving for their own kids," Obama told the audience, which including the former president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. "Anyone here thinks that our government always has the solutions, President Bush and I will be the first to tell you that you'll be sorely disappointed."

"The government can build the best school, with the best teachers, but we can't run the PTA ... we can pass the most comprehensive health care reform bill, but Congress can't be on the ground in our communities caring for the sick and helping people lead healthy lives."

The two leaders met at Bush's presidential library to celebrate almost two decades of work from the Points of Light Institute, which was founded with Bush's encouragement in 1990 to "encourage and empower the spirit of service," according to the group's Web site.

The Institute takes its name from Bush's 1989 inaugural address, where he referenced "a thousand points of light ... all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good."

Obama lauded the former president's lifetime of service -- from his enlistment at 18 to his community work during retirement -- noting that Bush was the first president to create a White House office devoted to promoting volunteer work. The president said Bush's legacy of service affected the life of his own family.

"It's a vision that's changed lives across this country, including that of a young woman who went to work for an organization called Public Allies to prepare young people for public service careers -- an organization initially funded by the Bush administration," Obama said. "Her experience there inspired her to devote her own life to serving others, and that young woman happens to be my wife, Michelle Obama."

Obama latched onto the community service theme during last year's presidential campaign. He signed a measure in April designed to strengthen national community service efforts by boosting federal funding for thousands of volunteers in fields ranging from clean energy to health care and education.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, renamed to honor the late senator's sponsorship of the measure, will more than triple the number of positions in the AmeriCorps program, from 75,000 to 250,000, by 2017.

"Our government can help to rebuild our economy ... [but] we need Americans willing to mentor our eager young children, or care for the sick, or ease the strains of deployment on our military families," Obama said when signing the bill into law.

The law created four national service corps and launched several other initiatives, including, among other things, a "Summer of Service" program to spur greater community outreach by middle- and high-school students. Older Americans were encouraged to volunteer more through the creation of a "Silver Scholars" program, under which individuals 55 and older who perform 350 hours of service receive a $1,000 award.

The law increased the existing AmeriCorps educational stipend offered to volunteers to $5,350 -- the same amount as the maximum Pell college grant.

Some critics have contended the measure, expected to cost roughly $6 billion over the next five years, is fiscally irresponsible in light of the current economic downturn. They also argue that the concept of volunteerism is undermined by providing financial compensation for community service.

Points of Light Institute CEO Michelle Nunn, however, praised the legislation for encouraging people to "volunteer their time and talents to positively impact the nation's largest problems."

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

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