News & Views from 465 California Street

Choosing a Leader

Clint Reilly

Barack Obama has electrified crowds across the country with his transcendent speeches and promise of changing our politics.

So why do I favor Hillary Clinton in today’s primary election?

In short, Clinton has the leadership acumen and toughness to be an outstanding transactional president. Obama’s inspirational speeches are not backed by the kind of substantive reform agenda necessary to bring about transformational change.

The primary election battle between Clinton and Obama is a case study in James MacGregor Burns’s two classic approaches to leadership. Obama casts himself as an outsider advocating wholesale, fundamental change in Washington, while Clinton burnishes her Washington credentials and touts her ability to carry out incremental change among the factions and interest groups she is personally acquainted with. This outsider/insider contrast has produced a comparative stalemate as Democratic voters split on which reform approach is more relevant in 2008.

In his famous book, “Leadership,” Burns described two kinds of leaders: transformational and transactional. Transformational leaders are that rare breed who succeed in creating fundamental change that transforms their world. Burns cites Gandhi and Mao as two examples. Perhaps the only social/political/religious leader in modern America who was a catalyst for transformational change was Dr. Martin Luther King, whose movement profoundly altered popular attitudes toward race. Transactional leaders offer something different. They are executives who exercise power to address crisis and they excel at maneuvering solutions through a complex bureaucracy where diverging interests claim territory like competing nations. Burns cites three American presidents as outstanding transactional leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Obama employs the soaring rhetoric and sweeping vision of a transformational leader. His alliterative phrase-making, with which he indicts a corrupt politics that has gridlocked the nation’s capitol, is reminiscent of Ted Sorenson’s speeches for Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Focusing more on politics than policy, Obama blames partisanship, special interest money and turf wars for creating a system no longer capable of coherent domestic and international policies. He uses rhetoric like “I see an America where there are no red states and blue states, there are only the United States.” Or, as in the case of his California television commercial, “It’s time to tell the American people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.” Obama wears his slim legislative résumé as a clergyman’s uniform that sets him apart from the jaded and barnacled candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is the “power broker” who, familiar with the mechanics of power, focuses on the solutions power can create. Instead of “Mrs. Smith goes to Washington,” Clinton is a 21st-century Eleanor Roosevelt. Her weary response to Obama’s anti-politics broadsides is the shrug of a bloodied survivor. Decades of experience with the Republican attack apparatchiks have soured her on the rhetoric of “post partisanship.” Rather than wagging her finger at the flawed processes of government, Mrs. Clinton believes our present government can deliver important change. Her bread-and-butter agenda is aimed at meeting the economic needs of Americans rather than critiquing the failures of democratic government. Clinton wears her political experience like a decorated general ready for battle.

Governor Hiram Johnson, the legendary political reformer from California’s past, set forth a package of reform proposals that cleaned up corruption in the early 20th-century California government. He single-handedly transformed a system of graft, payoffs and cronyism. Compared to the detailed agenda of Hiram Johnson, Obama’s anti-politics rhetoric appears vacuous. Without solid transactional credentials gained through experience, Obama’s ability to deliver reform is unknown.

Hillary Clinton has survived and thrived in the center ring of American politics. She lacks the illusion that she can transform Washington, but believes she can resurrect our nation’s economy, health care system and foreign policy.

Comments (15)

  • Good editorial. You might add Castro to the list of great 20th century transformational leaders. Two points though: The transformational leaders that work inside a system must have great transactional skills. And the great transactional leaders you mentioned had transformational ideas. Clinton has shown little to indicate she can muster the transformational ideas, but I think Obama can learn the transactional skills. Second, administrations run the government not talking heads. Both Obama and Clinton will drink from the same administratiive well

    Posted by: DAVID DOLBERG | February 5th, 2008 at 8:37 am

  • Alas, these are subtleties beyond the average voter. They go for flash over substance every time. Well, almost every time. When Bill said a matchup featuring Hillary and McCain would be “the most civilized” election in history, he meant the dullest. Two friends quibbling about differences at the margins, that’s what that would be.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | February 5th, 2008 at 12:50 pm

  • Clint: You have drawn a clear, compelling and succinct difference between the two Democratic contenders. But Clinton seems to be flailing in the face of Barack’s momentum. As ambitious and informed as she is, most of her political experience is as behind the scenes political operative for her husband rather than hands on practitioner. The operative has the luxury of providing counsel, devising strategy and implementing tactics for the practitioner but they can always step away from the limelight. The practitioner cannot step away and doesn’t want to. When the South Carolina primary turned ugly, she left the state for her husband to sort out. Political operatives rarely become successful leaders in their own right because they are more about theory which is learned and less about practice which is instinctive.

    Posted by: Jim Herlihy | February 5th, 2008 at 1:13 pm

  • Your position has been well thought out and presented. Thank you for that. However, I feel that before Bill Clinton get intimate access to the White House and the Presidency, he needs to go thorough rehab. Many people will be uncomfortable with his “unofficial” presence and the absence of appropriate accountability.

    Posted by: Jeff Congdon | February 5th, 2008 at 1:30 pm

  • Great commentary about the candidates Clint. Obama is very impressive. But clearly Hillary Clinton has the experience and strength to fight for us from coast to coast. She is the better candidate to lead America!

    Posted by: Walter McCaffrey | February 5th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

  • CLINT, You have made several very persuasive arguments for Hillary’s Presidency. Personally, I find her calculating, bitter, unattractive and lacking the presence of a true leader. After eight years of a completely destructive Presidency, this country deserves more than Hillary. Obama may be an unknown in may areas, but he shows leadership, individuality and most of all compassion…all lacking in Senator Clinton.

    Posted by: Anne Lawrence | February 5th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

  • Well, I thought that she would be the best candidate from the beginning. All these negatives people bring up about Bill are pluses in my mind. For every little issue they have there is a personal relationship with leaders from foreign countries that won’t have to be garnered in the interest of an Obama-led State Dept. Obama has been to Europe how many times? I hear you could count them on less than a hand, but I admit to this, like many questions about Barack, I don’t know the answer. I can’t even say the name Barack Hussein Obama without being accused of pandering to the right, how absurd! I will be voting for him if he’s the nominee. However, this election for me is about repairing how America is seen by the world, and it’s about moving toward a global consensus on how the planet, not just nations, should be managed. If we elect a candidate other than one that clearly sets her eyes on universal health care, well… you’ve seen “Sicko”, right? We’re the last country left that can’t commit to the health of its own citizens! Since the rest of the world doesn’t vote on a candidate’s personal life, I, like them, will vote on the resume. I just like the results they get…

    Posted by: Tim Cooper | February 5th, 2008 at 2:57 pm

  • Mr. Reilly –

    Great column. I couldn’t agree with you more. But there’s one more thing to consider: With the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, presidents in their 40s aren’t all that successful. Our most successful presidents have been in their 50s and 60s.

    Of course, you can also make the opposite comment, too, that presidents in their 50s and 60s stand a very good chance of failing, too.

    Posted by: Doug Page | February 5th, 2008 at 5:02 pm

  • I am supporting Hillary. Below is a summary and an idea of what her husband was able to do. I hope she can garner similar results having been First Lady TWICE in the White House witnessing what her husband Bill (my favorite Prez next to JFK) accomplished. Now that’s EXPERIENCE with COMPASSION. Let’s hope she can follow through and accomplish what’s best for America, the World, and the Global Human Family.

    During the administration of William Jefferson Clinton, the U.S. enjoyed more peace and economic well being than at any time in its history. He was the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. He could point to the lowest unemployment rate in modern times, the lowest inflation in 30 years, the highest home ownership in the country’s history, dropping crime rates in many places, and reduced welfare rolls. He proposed the first balanced budget in decades and achieved a budget surplus. As part of a plan to celebrate the millennium in 2000, Clinton called for a great national initiative to end racial discrimination.

    After the failure in his second year of a huge program of health care reform, Clinton shifted emphasis, declaring “the era of big government is over.” He sought legislation to upgrade education, to protect jobs of parents who must care for sick children, to restrict handgun sales, and to strengthen environmental rules.


    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 5th, 2008 at 7:01 pm

  • It’s also important to realize that all of the good transformational leaders that were named … weren’t presidents. King, Mao, and Gandhi.

    ALL of the best presidents were transactional. ALL OF THEM — good presidents must be.

    If Clinton is more transactional and Obama more transformational … that tells you something right there.

    Posted by: Janis | February 6th, 2008 at 7:42 pm

  • Great leaders must be both transactional and transformational. Just like great economies if they are to thrive eternally, must be both transactional and transformational. (more specifically, capitalist and socialist). Mixed. That’s why the hybrid Republican/Democratic system is the most effective one, since the people (and delegates = informed citizenry) get to decide which course of direction (Democratic or Republican, and more specifically which leader of the Party), whether reform or continued status quo, by choosing a leader that is best for the unit of citizens as a whole, known as a nation.

    With respect to past Presidents, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was both a great and effective transformational and transactional President. Tough. (with and against foes both domestic and international). Compassionate and Flexible. (with and against foes both domestic and international). He allowed Krushchev to save face in the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Bay of Pigs”), remember? The Free World won that one. The whole World received a very important education. Click on the link below to get more info on JFK.

    In the final analysis, problems must be solved. The People and the Governments that are supposed to serve them must be mobilized to ensure national security, to cure the ills of society, to foster and promote business and economies, and to maximize and preserve the resources in which they are powerfully and dutifully keepers of. And if those objectives can be achieved with a bit of compassion it would be an added blessing.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 8th, 2008 at 12:15 pm

  • Transactional, Transformational. My gut feeling tells me that we need a REAL transformation in the leadership of this country. And from reading Burns, it appears that he would say leaders need to be both transformational and transactional.

    As for Clinton v. Obama, I have looked at Hillary Clinton’s “resume” and Obama’s “resume” and the latter shows a consistency that is much more comforting, hardly “slim” for his years. It is public record that Clinton has taken millions in lobbyist money directly and through “bundled” techniques–in that sense she truly is “transactional”. She was the president of the Young Republican in college, was an average student, failed her first bar exam, then went on to be a corporate lawyer in Arkansas, and sat on the board of Wal Mart. Her years as first lady were largely uneventful save for her failed health care initiative. Her senatorial record is also unimpressive.

    Barack Obama on the other hand graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, then went on to direct Illinois Project VOTE! and worked on community development projects. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for 9 years, and also served as a state senator. The only boards he sat on were civic or philanthropic. In contrast to the silver-spooned Clinton, Obama just paid off his student loans 3 years ago from his book sales. He is taking no lobbyist money for his presidential race, which has raised most of its millions from under $100 contributions. John Kerry (one of many high profile endorsers) said this about Obama’s record .

    Before Susan Eisenhower, Carolina Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Garrison Keeler, Ken Burns and others who had *nothing to gain* by acting to endorse Obama, I read his work, looked as his career, heard him speak, and I am most impressed.

    Posted by: Bob Lever | February 8th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

  • If you have the time and inclination, here is a link to a private interview Barack Obama had with the board of the San Francisco Chronicle (an hour long interview). It is unique in that it not what most people see on the news stations and in campaign speeches. It is clear that he is very bright, very articulate and makes very good well thought out decisions. It is one of the better pieces I have seen in any venue. He is impressive, no matter what political views one has. Certainly, he is on a whole other frequency than others. It is worth the time to see all of this interview.

    Posted by: Bob Lever | February 8th, 2008 at 2:26 pm

  • Thank you for the links, Bob. That was a very real side of Barack few get to see. Eloquent as usual. Mr. Kerry makes a convincing and persuasive argument for Barack Obama.

    In that Chronicle piece, Barack needs a bit more fine tuning on his understanding of environmental issues and carbon dioxide emissions. However, he was right on the mark about the effectiveness and efficiency of those catalytic converters which transformed the quality of the air we breathe in CA today. One can learn more by going here.

    California is leading the way.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 8th, 2008 at 4:38 pm

  • God bless us, Hillary won the California primary!
    If only she could have been given all the delegates for that.

    Posted by: Eddie Bryan | March 26th, 2008 at 10:47 pm

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