Should American presidents steer the nation toward lofty goals based on high-minded principles, appealing to our better angels, or should they work to forge lasting compromises by whatever grubby means necessary?
It’s an old debate between two visions of political leadership: One, “transformational,” the other, “transactional.” Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McGregor Burns first introduced the distinction in 1978, and it’s been applied to presidents — past and present — ever since.
And now, with Donald Trump’s election, the debate’s raging again.
“Transformational” leadership is often associated with Democrats, including Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK and most recently, Barack Obama. But occasionally a Republican president like Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan is included in the mix. Their hallmark is an appeal to America’s founding ideals and to our nation’s role as a beacon for the “free” world.
By contrast, “transactional” leaders, men like LBJ or perhaps Bill Clinton, are more attuned to deal-making and bargaining, making trade-offs and achieving messy compromises that appeal to the interests of different constituencies without necessarily offering much of a grand vision.
In fact, no single leader fits this binary model perfectly. Though “transformational” leadership — in business as well as politics — is in vogue these days, each approach has much to commend to itself.
Some analysts argue that these are not so much competing approaches to leadership as different rhetorical styles, and that all leaders, to be truly effective, must inspire and cajole.
A common criticism of “transformational” leaders is that they promise more than they deliver — and at their worst, they can prove miserably ineffective at the give-and-take of real world politics.
Jimmy Carter, who extolled the cause of human rights, is often cited as a weak transformational leader — long on rhetoric but in the end a president who seemed unduly pessimistic about America and too defensive about projecting the nation’s power and influence abroad.
On the other hand, Mr. Reagan, who followed Mr. Carter, ushered in a new era of high-minded globalism based on a staunch defense of Western democracies combined with harsh attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism.
Mr. Reagan also got things done, most notably perhaps, a comprehensive bipartisan deal on immigration reform that has eluded most American presidents ever since.
What about presidents that realize an agenda — but without the kind of uplift associated with leaders like Reagan or JFK? LBJ promoted and signed a host of powerful civil rights bills that helped end the era of Jim Crow and de facto racial segregation for blacks in America. As the influential former Democratic Senate majority leader and a Southerner, Mr. Johnson may have been the only man in politics who could have negotiated the compromises required to achieve the “Great Society.”
Yet LBJ is not remembered as a great transformational leader — while his predecessor, JFK, who failed to move on civil rights and suffered policy blunders and setbacks like the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, is.
This paradox is explained in part by another aspect of “transformational” leaders — they frequently exude charisma and a sense of personal dynamism, while leaving their listeners inspired by their oratory.
JFK, and more recently Barack Obama, displayed these qualities to such a degree that history will likely be kind to each man despite their relatively scant governing record.
FDR may be the best example of a president that offered a powerful transformational vision (e.g. the “Four Freedoms”) coupled with a sweeping legislative reform agenda — the “New Deal.” FDR’s fireside chats on radio had the entire nation spellbound.
Arguably, such leaders — Abraham Lincoln would be another — emerge during periods of national crisis. Their leadership not only helps resolve the crisis but ushers in a new political era.
But their examples are rare, in part, because periods of such profound upheaval are infrequent, too.
A more common example is that of Bill Clinton, who came to power on the heels of the Reagan years when the U.S. economy was declining but also experiencing a significant reorganization. His predecessor, George H.W. Bush, was a caretaker leader, trying to preserve the Reagan legacy but lacking the Gipper’s majestic presence and force of personality.
Paradoxically, Mr. Bush briefly became one of the most popular presidents in recent U.S. history, earning a 90 percent approval rating after Desert Storm, the most successful U.S. military action since Vietnam. But once the economy began entering a deep recession in 1991-92, he became extremely vulnerable politically. Mr. Clinton exploited that opening — much as Mr. Obama would in the even deeper recession of 2007-08. But his two terms in office were largely known for transactional success — NAFTA and welfare reform, most notably — against a backdrop of economic prosperity not seen since the 1950s and 1960s.
And what about President Trump? Democrats and some Republicans have found his personal example and erratic style downright appalling, even doubting he’d survive his first year. But with Mr. Trump’s early success on key domestic (tax reform) and foreign policy (ISIS) issues, some analysts are beginning to take his leadership credentials more seriously.
“We can survive Trump’s soulless transactional leadership,” the headline of one opinion column blared recently.
Mr. Trump may be the most loathed president since Richard Nixon — with whom he is sometimes compared, largely because of “Russia-Gate.” But like Mr. Nixon’s bold opening to China, Mr. Trump’s prospective brokering of a permanent armistice between North and South Korea would be a real historic breakthrough. Mr. Trump might even win the Nobel Prize for his efforts.
• Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington writer.
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