Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has issued a challenge for greater national service. During a speech to college students in Colorado on Wednesday, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said he wants to expand the military and the Peace Corps and provide other opportunities for people of all ages to serve.
"Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July," Obama said. "Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it."
Obama's Republican rival, John McCain, also talks frequently on the campaign trail about inspiring national service.
"I think after 9/11 we made a mistake," McCain said. "I think after 9/11, instead of telling Americans to take a trip or go shopping, I think we had an opportunity to call Americans to serve."
Despite the two men's agreement on the benefits of national service, the issue plays a very different role in their overall platforms. And it's no surprise that both Obama and McCain are big believers in public service. They both devoted their careers to it, and in a way, both men found themselves through their service to others.
Obama recalled on Wednesday how working as a community organizer in Chicago allowed him to finally put down roots after years adrift. "I began to realize I wasn't just helping other people," he said. "Through service, I found a community that embraced me — citizenship that was meaningful, the direction that I'd been seeking. Through service I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger American story."
For McCain, that realization came in Vietnam, where the fiercely independent young man learned that teaming up with others didn't have to mean losing himself. McCain writes in his memoir, "Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone."
He often sounds that theme on the campaign trail, as he did in the "volunteer state" of Tennessee. "My one job and my one accomplishment will be to inspire Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I will tell Americans of the beauty and the nobility of serving a cause greater than their self-interest."
The Role Of Government In Service
Where McCain and Obama diverge on the issue is the ways in which the government should act in fostering or reflecting that spirit.
McCain's domestic agenda is all about harnessing self-interest for positive ends — whether it be tax cuts aimed at boosting the economy or personal insurance policies designed to control healthcare costs.
Speaking to students at his old high school, McCain said military service is the noblest of all causes. But otherwise, he seems to view public service as something that happens more or less outside of government — much like the first President Bush, who pictured Americans volunteering for religious, business or neighborhood groups.
"Like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky," McCain said. "Does government have a place? Yes. Government is part of the nation of communities — not the whole, just a part."
Obama, on the other hand, sees government as both a catalyst and an expression of service to a larger cause. He described that central role earlier this year during a speech in Wisconsin.
"The most important thing that we can do right now is to re-engage the American people in the process of governance. To get them excited and interested again in what works and what can work in our government. To make politics cool again and important again and relevant again," he said.
For Obama, the notion that Americans are all in this together is a central driver of domestic policy on taxes, health care and the like. Democratic campaign strategist Eric Sapp says that message about a "common good" was originally aimed at religious voters, but it has broad appeal to secular voters as well.
"What's made America strong historically is this idea of coming together as Americans," Sapp says. "Not seeing the 'others' within our groups, but coming together for a common purpose around a call to something greater than ourselves."
Both Obama and McCain are tapping into that ideal — Obama as a blueprint for government policy, McCain as a civic-minded alternative.