December 16, 2010

By William R. Gruver

When, in the midst of the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama revealed that his goal was to be a "transformational president," much like Ronald Reagan, he was exposing the full extent of his aspirations.

"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it," Obama said then. "He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." 

Obama, it was clear, wanted to change America in the same manner, though not necessarily the direction, that Reagan did when he led the country out of the malaise of the Carter presidency.

Transformational change
James MacGregor Burns first defined "transforming leadership" as wholly different than standard "transactional leadership." Leaders who are transformational elevate their followers to higher levels of achievement and ethical standards. By this standard, Obama seems to have accomplished some transformational change.

Until the president personally intervened this year, health care reform was headed toward being just one more in a series of failed legislative efforts by Democrats during the last 50 years. Similarly, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law was the most sweeping financial regulatory reform since FDR's New Deal securities legislation, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act, mandating equal pay for women, achieved a goal unsuccessfully pursued for most of the 20th century.

Yet today the president is on the defensive, vying with the tea party movement for mass political influence. Why, despite his many achievements, is the president not seen as being transformational? Where did he fall short of his goal? Could the tea party become the transformational force America has been waiting for?

According to Burns, a transformational leader, as a prerequisite to gaining his followers' trust and ultimately their buy-in to his vision must establish that he is operating in the best interests of his followers. To become transformational and satisfy the highest-order needs - such as self-actualization, pride in self and group, and believing in and pursuing a vision - a leader must first guarantee people the basics: life, sustenance and security.

Economic security
In this context, it's clear where Obama stumbled in his quest to become a Reaganlike transformational leader. By pursuing health care reform and climate legislation before satisfying a more basic concern of the American people - economic security - the president alienated some of his key supporters.

Female voters who were squarely behind the president in 2008 now appear to favor Republicans for the first time in modern memory. And nearly half of Democrats now believe that Obama should be challenged in the 2012 primaries.

Obama's premature, high-order initiatives have thus created a vacuum, one that cannot be overcome by his charisma and one that the tea party is now trying to fill. Indeed, the tea party movement's success at attracting followers and spreading influence can be explained by its approach: demanding that politicians meet people's more basic need of economic security first and putting up candidates who claim this will be their top priority. The tea party sees the flaw in the president's leadership and is exploiting it. But can the movement provide the transformational leadership that the president has not?

Right now, the tea party comprises a protest movement asking for a new economic approach. It is frustrated that those Americans who behaved responsibly (who didn't overreach in housing or credit, for example) are now being asked by the government to subsidize those who behaved irresponsibly - be they homeowners who can't pay their mortgages or bankers whose greed overwhelmed their judgment.

Emerging vision
And yet, amid their angry protests, a vision is emerging from the tea party of an America less dependent on government and more fiscally prudent. If a politician were to tap into that vision and achieve it while in office, that person would be, according to Burns, transformational. Clearly, the thuggish elements present in some of the tea party movement raises a note of caution. Were those elements to rise to leadership, the movement's self-destruction would be quick. Still, the tea party is delivering a message that could set the stage for a transformational leader to leave his indelible mark on the country.

Any wise presidential contender (Republican, Democrat or third party) could look at the movement and see the benefits to be had by focusing vigorously on strengthening the economy, creating jobs and preventing wasteful spending. By co-opting the tea party vision, such a contender might be able to capture the movement, appeal to independents and become a viable challenger to Obama in 2012.

Posted Dec. 16, 2010


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