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Obama, Trump and the communication of values

By Daniel Tisch

/ Posted in Leadership

Why communicating values will influence America’s future — and the world’s



As the most-watched presidential transition in modern U.S. history takes place this week, we see much more than the predictable clash of partisan loyalties and ideologies; we are witnessing a collision of values that will influence the future of not just the United States, but also the world.


This is not to suggest that the whole world revolves around U.S. politics, nor to deny that global influence is increasingly multipolar. But as the planet’s largest economic, military and cultural power, America’s self-definition and direction implicates all of us.


The communication of values has always been imperative for leaders, and never more so than today. With countless competing messengers empowered by social media, and an attention-poor public, a leader’s specific positions and pronouncements are easily lost or misconstrued; his or her best hope, therefore, is to communicate a “who” and a “why” – a character, a purpose and a set of values.


It is not surprising, therefore, that President Barack Obama’s farewell speech dwelled heavily on his interpretation of American values; we can expect Donald Trump to offer his own — consciously or not — in his early days in the White House. Let’s look at the values landscape, at what the two leaders are communicating, and at the implications.


What are American values?

There’s a remarkable consistency between academic analysis of American values over time, perhaps because a mature nation’s values change only gradually. Here is one example of how researchers define U.S. values in contrast with those of other nations:

American values vs. international values

Source: Meridian International Center

This chart, created more than thirty years ago, still rings true. More recent sources, such as one notable edition of a regular study by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, shows how these values remain valid — but are shifting. For example:

  1. Americans remain proud of their individualism and commitment to personal control and freedom; there is less confidence, however, in free enterprise (i.e., competition); in America’s ability to change and adapt; and in the classic “American dream” of upward mobility through self-reliance.
    Survey shows freedom of speech and religion shape American values more than other countries
  2. Americans, like citizens of many countries, now believe the values of the wealthy, of powerful institutions and of political leaders are different (and less virtuous) than their own.
    Survey finds Americans believe Wall Street banks have different values than the average AmericanSurvey finds America's elected officials mainly reflect the values of the wealthy
  3. Americans currently believe people are typically motivated by self-interest, not altruism.
    Survey finds most Americans belive people are motivated by self interest
  4. A clear majority of Americans consider themselves more open to new ideas than their parents were, and more tolerant of other people or cultures. In addition, more Americans see themselves as more liberal than their parents than those who see themselves as more conservative.Survey shows most Americans see themselves as more liberal than their parents

A tale of two presidents

Obama and Trump each appeal in different ways to traditional American values — with some departures that seem to recognize how these values have shifted. Here is a subjective assessment of the values each leader demonstrates in his communication:

Trump values vs Obama`s

It is important to note that electing a leader does not necessarily mean mass endorsement of his or her values. Writer Atul Gawande notes that while Americans have elected a president whose persona does not reflect values such as decency, reason and compassion, voters were not rejecting those values, but rather rejecting elites out of fear or fury.


Obama and Trump have some things in common: both are assertive communicators who are comfortable in the spotlight. Both diverged at times from traditional partisan paths — Obama in his unsuccessful ambition to heal the nation’s political divisions, and Trump in refusing to cede influence over his campaign to his party’s establishment. In addition, both claim preoccupations with equality and the fate of the ordinary American — albeit expressing the problem and its potential solutions in dramatically different ways.


Why do values matter in communication? It’s about trust


There are different types of trust: transactional trust means we believe someone will keep a promise; relational trust means we believe someone will be fair, even when we disagree; but values trust — where our values are aligned — is arguably the deepest and most enduring.


For political leaders, who face a persistent trust deficit, communicating values is a search for this elusive commodity.


In 2017 and beyond, we will see many leaders around the world choose elements of the Obama and Trump formulas. Europe’s far-right parties have been emboldened by Trump’s victory; in a milder formulation, some Canadian Conservatives are seeking to find an electoral ‘wedge’ issue by proposing to screen newcomers for ‘Canadian values;’ other, wiser Conservatives reject this divisive, corrosive idea.


I make no secret that I believe Obama’s values are more aligned with a prosperous, just and sustainable global society, and remain optimistic that they will be affirmed by more citizens and leaders in the long term. Naturally, the values that prevail will depend greatly on whether people have security, hope and opportunity  — which will, in turn, be affected by the quality of our leaders, their actions, and their communication.

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