Barack Obama is not a tiger, so he may lose the presidential election like so many non-tigers before him -- George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry come to mind. American voters want a strong president, a man of action, and not an intellectual who hesitates about values before he acts. The same goes for women: Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are tigers.
The Republicans have won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections by nominating tigers who communicated strong values with ease. Getting the right balance in communicating values is more important than getting on the right side of the issues in a presidential election. This is why John McCain is such a strong values candidate even though the Republican performance in economic affairs and foreign affairs has cratered for 80% or more of the American voters.
In a 1992 content analysis of presidential TV ads from Eisenhower to Clinton, I found that the candidate who more reflected Abraham Maslow's three basic values -- economy, family and security -- always defeated the candidate who appeared light on those values but heavily into esteem values -- the utopian dream. By identifying tigers, the basic values analysis is a more accurate predictor of election outcomes than political polls, of which I have conducted more than 1,000 since 1968.
The candidates who hammered on "strong economy, strong families, and strong defense" won every time, even while their esteem values, dreams, ideals and ideologies differed wildly from one to the other. Test this thesis from your own knowledge of tigers defeating non-tigers: Ike Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson, JFK over Richard Nixon; but Nixon over George McGovern; Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale; Bill Clinton over papa George Bush and Bob Dole; and son George Bush over Al Gore and John Kerry. In each case the tiger resonates with easily recognized, strong basic values.
Bill Clinton was the only Democrat to learn the language of strong values. He got on and stayed on that message so stubbornly that some liberal Democrats believed he had sold out to the right and conservative Republicans anguished about his stealing their thunder. While Clinton's governance was way left of Reagan's right-wing drift, those two presidents are virtually identical in resonating at the values level. And that's the level where voters give their trust.
Because of Clinton's scandalous sexual misconduct, Gore, Kerry and now Obama have abandoned Clinton's values language in favor of the dreams, ideals and hope that make liberal Democrats swoon but independent voters worry about values. This is the real tragedy of Clinton for the Democrats: he had the solution for election and governance which was abandoned because of a sex scandal.
As I watch the presidential campaign communications in 2008, John McCain, against all domestic and foreign policy odds, appears electable over Barack Obama, which would reverse the modern electoral rule of punishing the party in power for failure at war, recession or both.
Obama's stunningly beautiful rhetoric rises grandly to the heights of hope, harmony, peace and justice. He, like many liberal Democrats before him, is imbued with the esteem value. But unlike John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who balanced utopian dreams -- let's go to the moon, let's end poverty -- with powerful doses of economic, family and security messages, Obama soars above mundane values and takes his audience into orbit. When he comes back to earth to address kitchen table worries -- mortgages, jobs, health care and foreign threats -- he is obviously not as passionate about it, and this translates into a delivered feeling that Obama doesn't care, he's aloof, he can't be trusted, he's not one of us.
Complicating the perceived values imbalance, Obama is black, so whites judge him by a higher standard anyhow. Race is a turf and family value historically dividing America. Race is a filter that pervades political relationships as an unseen backdrop or undetected undercurrent. For whites to accept a black leader in a trust relationship, the black has to go a long distance. To break through that unconscious resistance to relate, Obama has to talk colloquially and continuously about basic values close to the heart of the white Democrat and independent voter.
In one speech, Sarah Palin can achieve what it might take Barack Obama 100 speeches to do, if at all. The country was fully prepared for an alpha-female tiger after Hillary Clinton's campaign, and Sarah Palin was pretty, sharp-tongued, and a lip-glossed Alaskan to boot. For those freaked out about her unpreparedness, the history of the other tigers we have voted into the Oval Office stares us in the face.
If Barack Obama talked and played like Tiger Woods, he'd be in another place with the American people. He can concentrate like Woods but not act and talk so we feel we really know him. It's not a question of getting angry or showing emotion but of revealing values he can be trusted to hold dear. Woods never hesitates; he acts with grace and talks with ease about it. For Barack to be a tiger -- or to be like Tiger -- is asking a lot this late in the game. But that's what he has to do to win.
Michael Rowan is a democratic political consultant with experience in 14 nations since 1968. He is the author with Douglas Schoen of Chavez: The Threat Closer to Home [Simon & Schuster, January, 2009].