Presidential Hopefuls Buzzword Takes Off

The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 21, 2007; 2:17 AM

WASHINGTON -- Meet the transformers. No, they're not toy action figures or electrical components. They're candidates for president, and transformational leadership is their calling card.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama announced he was running for president by declaring, "I want to transform this country."

Republican Mitt Romney launched his candidacy by telling people, "If there ever was a time when innovation and transformation were needed in government, it is now."

And Democrat John Edwards revved up his second presidential bid by offering "transformational change that will strengthen this country," as he phrased it in a recent Associated Press interview.

Just what is a transformational leader?

Presidential historian James MacGregor Burns, whose 1978 book "Leadership" is widely admired and studied, wrote that a "transformational leader stands on the shoulders of his followers, expressing coherently those ideas which lie inchoate in the hearts of the followers _ and in the process makes his followers into new leaders."

That's what Howard Dean tried to do in 2004 with his grass-roots-powered populism _ until his primeval scream in Iowa drowned out the whole thing.

Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who helped to frame Dean's campaign after reading Burns' book, welcomes the talk about transformational leadership rippling through the early campaign rhetoric this time.

"You see it now popping up on the Internet," he says. "I think it's a very healthy thing that at least we're in some discussion."

He's not sure, however, that the candidates realize how hard it is to avoid the more traditional "transactional" form of political leadership typified by pitches such as: "I'll give you a tax cut for your vote."

"Any one of these candidates could be a truly transformational candidate," Trippi says, "and any one of them could immediately revert to being transactional."

Al Gore, who so far is staying out of the race, has clearly become a transformational leader with his campaign to fight global warming, Trippi says. But if he got back into the race, "the one question mark would be: Does running ruin him being a transformational guy?"

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