The Obama Administration: Transitioning from Transformational to Transactional…and Back Again

July 06, 2010

By Frank Igwe, Fels Alumnus

President Obama once stated that successful presidencies are predicated by 10% agenda and 90% what happens by chance during the administration’s tenure.  The statement rings with startling clarity in light of the Afghanistan war’s recent reemergence into the public consciousness, vis-à-vis the disparaging comments made by General Stanley McChrystal, and the ongoing oil disaster unfolding daily in our country’s Gulf Region. 

These events reveal and illustrate two contending identities of President Obama.  One identity is characterized by boldness and strength of purpose, as he swiftly dispatched of General McChrystal for apparent insubordination, and the other betrays an inability to harness and exploit shifting circumstances, as we witness a squandered opportunity to present a convincing argument for pursuing a new trajectory of energy policy.  Two separate and discrete events that are emblematic of a wider observed pattern of acting and reacting during the President’s short period in office. 

In the end, only one of these identities will survive history’s narrative, whether it is of bold, decisive, and visionary leadership, or an administration that only delivered weak and incremental change, failing to inspire and lacking vision.  There is no middle ground.

I submit to the President that now is not the time for timidity, especially given America’s long time love affair with leaders who are bold, even at the peril of them being bold and wrong.  It is a risk that the nation is willing to take, choosing to follow someone who is clearly for, or against, something…ANYTHING.  It is not as if bold leadership is something that is foreign to President Obama.  After all, his campaign was based on him being a transformational leader, who would look at what was, think creatively about how things might be, and then go forth and make “change” happen.  More specifically, President Obama was elected to boldly remove our troops from Afghanistan, to have enough vision to challenge America to embrace the notion of new energy sources and policies (regardless of the short term pain it may cause), and inspirationally marshal a coalition to get us true health care reform that included a public option.  This was the transformational image upon which President Obama ran, and this was the image that a majority of Americans voted for at the polls.

While some may be disappointed in his performance thus far, President Obama still stands at the doorstep of being the transformational leader America desperately craves, and I believe that he will rise to the occasion.  However, President Obama must ask something of the American people.  Ask us to sacrifice, and push us to rise to the occasion.  He must remember the words that he himself spoke:  “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”  If he does not, and chooses to forsake the “transformational” leader mantle for a more traditionally “transactional” leadership role, he runs the risk of alienating his base, as they juxtapose his soaring rhetoric against the images of wounded soldiers in isolated barracks that were long supposed to be closed, birds and marshes covered in BP oil with no new energy policy in sight, and healthcare disparities that continually sentence the poorer members of our society to an early grave.  If this happens, the subliminal message will begin to morph from chants of “Yes We Can”, to “Well, Maybe We Can’t”, forcing the Obama inspirational mystique to recede into the background.

I have tremendous admiration for President Obama, and to me, he is a President without peer.  I believe that he must tightly seize this moment in time, and tightly don those transformational leadership characteristics that we witnessed in splendid glory circa 2008.  Politics is indeed a contact sport, but it is a sport that our President has shown he can master.  The smart money is still on him.

Dr. C. Frank Igwe is an '07 Fels graduate, and a former Fellow of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  He is currently the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, City ACES.

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