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."