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Bill, Ted... and Barack

From NBC's Athena Jones

WASHINGTON -- President Obama today signed national service legislation he said represented the boldest expansion in opportunities to serve the country since the creation of AmeriCorps.

The president said the bill, called the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, was an opportunity to harness patriotism and "connect deeds to needs" to help people serve their communities. It will triple the size of AmeriCorps to 250,000 members from 75,000 members and help fund successful non-profit service initiatives.

Sen. Kennedy, who is suffering from brain cancer, was on hand for the bill signing, and so was Former President Clinton, the creator of AmeriCorps. In his brief introduction of the president, Kennedy compared the work Obama was doing to what his brother John F. Kennedy had accomplished by establishing the Peace Corps.

"Today another young president has challenged another generation to give back to this nation," Kennedy said. "Last spring at Wesleyan University, candidate Barack Obama summoned our nation to a new era of service. He said 'I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready and eager and up to the challenge.' Mr. President, I couldn't agree more."

Obama has often said government cannot be the solution to all of the nation's problems and made a call to service during the campaign and on Martin Luther King Day, just before the Inauguration. He has said service was a way to help young Americans not only develop as citizens but help pay for college and the bill he signed today links the AmeriCorps education award to the maximum Pell Grant level -- about $5,300 -- to help pay for higher education.

Obama called for bipartisan passage of the bill in his February speech before a joint session of Congress.

"I've seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers," the president said. "They're a generation that came of age amidst the horrors of 9/11 and Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economic crisis without precedent. And yet, despite all this -- or more likely because of it -- they've become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas, that people who love their country can change it."

He ticked off a series of statistics he said illustrated Americans' desire to serve, saying the Peace Corps had received three applications for every position available last year, 35,000 young people applied for 4,000 spots for Teach for America and that AmeriCorps had seen a 400% increase in applications in the past four months.

In an effort to further encourage a spirit of service, Obama proclaimed April 19th to 25th, 2009 as National Volunteer Week and called upon all Americans to volunteer.

"A week from tomorrow marks the 100th day of my administration," he said. "In those next eight days, I ask every American to make an enduring commitment to serving your community and your country in whatever way you can. Visit whitehouse.gov to share your stories of service and success."

The setting for the event was the SEED School, a local boarding school that offers a service-learning program designed to prepare students to be active citizens.

Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, former First Lady Rosalyn Carter and Caroline Kennedy joined the president for the signing, along with several members of Congress, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Gen. Colin Powell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Republican Sens. Michael Enzi of Wyoming and Orrin Hatch (UT), a co-sponsor of the bill.

"It's as simple as that," Obama said of service near the close of his remarks. "All that's required on your part is a willingness to make a difference. And that is, after all, the beauty of service. Anybody can do it. You don't need to be a community organizer, or a senator, or a Kennedy or even a President to bring change to people's lives."

After the event, the president and first lady, the Bidens and President Clinton headed to a garden in northeast Washington to plant trees. Upon arrival, Obama joked about not having boots before picking up a pick axe to clear away the earth, helping several students plant a tree and then posing for pictures.