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?"
Burns, now 88, is happy to see that candidates are talking about transformational leadership, but he's not sure they fully understand it. And even if they do, he says, "it's hard for them to realize that you don't just suddenly turn yourself into a transforming leader."
From what he's seen of the candidates so far, Burns said: "I think it's a fancy choice of words to indicate that they're going to do big things. Will they do big things? No, not in my view."
The candidates themselves speak of the need for transformation with dead-serious earnestness. Edwards, for example, is out front in calling for tax increases to pay for universal health care coverage. "On these big issues like Iraq and health care, I want to lead, not follow," he said.
Romney uses his transformational pitch to try to distinguish himself from Washington politics-as-usual. "I don't believe Washington can be transformed from within by lifetime politicians," he said.
Obama managed to tweak Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's signature line that "I'm in it to win it," when he expanded on that: "I want to win, but I don't just want to win. I want to transform the country."
It's not just the 2008 candidates who have tried to claim the mantle of transformational leader.
President Bush's aides have often spoken of his desire to be a transforming leader.
But Burns dismisses that notion out of hand.
"I can't imagine him even being serious about that," the scholar said.
Republican consultant Rich Galen thinks that all the "transformational" talk is nothing more than the latest fad in presidential packaging.
"This is the 2008 version of 'soccer mom,'" he said, evoking a catch phrase from campaigns past. And, Galen adds, probably not a very smart one.
"Candidates that are on the edge, no matter how transforming their ideas are, don't really go very far because they just make people uncomfortable," he said. "American politics generally is glacial in its changes. The notion of having somebody burst upon that scene that just changes everything happens very rarely."
Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said people are "fairly cynical about grandiose claims and terms, and what does it translate into specifically."
"The question of what we're really ready for is complicated," he said. "I'm all for change — as long as it make me healthier, younger and richer."