[OUTLOOK]Mr. Roh needs to mind his imageThe dispersion of political power ― between central and local governments, between the legislative and executive branches, and democratic decision-making processes within political parties ― is now irreversible. The Roh administration understands and is trying to implement such a policy; that is fortunate for the further consolidation of democracy in Korea.
But there is a pitfall to power dispersion. While sharing power can get rid of the corruption and arrogance of the authoritarian era, it can also lead us to incompetence and chaos if the dispersed power is not controlled properly. The public may even feel nostalgic about the authoritarian era if things do not turn out as well as they should.
The worldwide return to authoritarianism in the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s were cases in which democracies crumbled due to centrifugal force. Ironically, as more power is dispersed within a country’s political system, presidential leadership as a centripetal force for coordinating the dispersed power becomes more important.
But the president in a democracy cannot control the media, crack down on opposition politicians and lure legislators to his side by doing unlawful favors. Presidential leadership has to rely on the legitimacy bestowed on him by the support from the public. But then again, maintaining support from an impatient public is extremely difficult. As democratization progresses, public relations becomes more important to the president because maintaining public support is crucial.
To maintain public support, political goodwill, honesty and good policy choices are not enough. What agendas are to be set, as well as when and how, needs to be meticulously calculated. The government needs to provide a spectacle that entertains and touches people. Even when it takes a policy stance that the majority of the people support, the government should not be forced by the people to arrive at that stance but should instead lead people to that policy.
Unfortunately, the Roh administration does not understand this: it interprets the dispersion of power as passive leadership or limited leadership. It thinks democratic leadership means abandoning the president’s prestige and it believes its public relations strategy should be to wage war with the media.
As President Roh’s recent address to the National Assembly, at the beginning of which he said, “May I now begin?” showed, the functions that the president attends lack meticulous preparations and make those of us who want to feel proud about this great country ashamed of it instead. In particular, when the government of the Republic of Korea maintains it is weaker than a handful of newspapers, I truly feel ashamed of this administration. The administration needs to remember that a democratic society needs emotional scenes and spectacles to attract support from the people, and it should not be idle about maintaining presidential prestige.
The controversy over whether the president used unwarranted influence in naming the new KBS president, and not his remarks on political and economic reforms, made headlines after the president’s address to the National Assembly. Words and phrases that are uttered at random without a clear strategy on agenda-setting wipe away the real message that should be delivered to the people. The administration should not be upset about media that look for mistakes and take words out of context. In 1992, during the U.S. presidential campaign of the third candidate, Ross Perot, his popularity plummeted after it was reported that he called the congregation at an African-American church “you people.” That is what the media is all about.
Rather than blaming the media for doing what they should be doing, the administration should set up a focus group that chooses every single word used in speeches with special care, as well as conduct opinion polls regularly to see how the public feel about the administration’s positions.
Rather than blindly imitating the briefing system in the United States, and instead of burning up too much energy on reacting to false reports, the Roh administration should review the workings of the U.S. government’s public relations machine.
Administration political experts exert utmost efforts behind the scenes to portray their president in the best way possible in the critical media.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University.
by Kim Meen-geon