[VIEWPOINT]Time to step back, stop moaningPresident Bill Clinton once admitted during his first year in the White House that he had a bad feeling that he was going to fail as president. This was when the media were having fun every day by frying inexperienced White House staff members in their 20s and 30s for their mistakes. The sins of the young presidential aides alleged by the media even included stealing towels and gowns from the White House. Mr. Clinton’s policy to admit homosexuals into the military irked conservatives, and his ambitious plans for reforming health care sputtered to a ignominious end, leaving supporters indignant.
Unlike his self-abasing prediction, President Clinton did not fail. Albeit leaving a terrible blotch in his tenure with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton managed to reverse the chronic fiscal deficits of the United States and lead his country to its longest economic boom in history. Despite all his shortcomings, Bill Clinton was a man who knew the problems and how to set about solving them.
Recently, another president has admitted that he is having doubts about whether he can carry out his duties as president properly. Although an avalanche of criticism hit Roh Moo-hyun for making such an “irresponsible” statement, ironically, Mr. Roh’s insecurity gives us a sense of relief that the president has not been blinded by power to the difficulties facing his government.
The biggest reason President Roh found himself with difficulties on every side is because he and his aides initially failed to understand the significance of the presidential office and its responsibilities. They had also failed to prioritize national issues and set up policies accordingly. They also failed to draw on the support of the people to implement their policies.
The president’s job is not to assert his opinions and persuade others to put his ideas into policies. It is to collect all valid opinions and to decide on what policies he will support with his ideas. Once a policy is decided, the president must adopt it as his own and deliver it to the people as such. The president’s authority is harmed and government policies are obstructed when the president’s personal thoughts are too frequently delivered unfiltered to the public.
Mr. Roh’s current handling of the presidential staff or the cabinet could be compared to that of President John F. Kennedy, in which there are no chiefs of staff and the president as the central figure is connected directly to all his aides. While having the advantage of preventing any tyranny by the second-in-commands, this system in which the president always has the first and final say also has the risk of sending policies dancing to the tune of the president’s feelings and imposing an overwhelming burden on himself. President Kennedy was aware of this and he took care to delegate his authority appropriately by letting some meetings be held in his absence, something Mr. Roh could learn.
It would be wise of the president to refrain from fueling the sharply divided public opinion over our government’s policies on North Korea and the United States with personal comments. As we have seen during the last three months, every time the president made a strongly-opinionated comment on issues with North Korea or the United States, the public divide becomes deeper and the president finds himself with increasingly less ground to work on. The government should play the role of the good cop by putting forth principles such as “the peaceful settlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions” and “the consolidation of U.S.-Korea cooperation” and let either the progressive or the conservative public opinion play the bad cop role of checking North Korea and the United States by leaking information in the media. President Roh should have the openness of mind and wisdom to realize that the media and the public opinion have their uses.
One front line the president needs to step boldly onto is the “reform of politics” that the people are demanding. The people do not want to see the president break away to form a new party or to be obsessed with tearing apart the system and rebuilding to the advantage of any side in next year’s general elections. What the people want is a revision of the political laws that insures a fairer and more rational representation of their interests. They also want old habits done away with. The dispute settlement process in the Korea Cargo Transportation Workers Union strike showed that old politics was very much alive and kicking. It is a most fundamental constitutional principle that the government cannot spend the national budget without the consent of the National Assembly. Yet this most basic principle was ignored in the demand by the workers for a 180-billion-won ($150-million) subsidy, the administration’s agreement to the demand without the National Assembly’s consent and the legislators’ reluctance to intervene in the matter even knowing that it was their duty to do so.
Above all, the president must either mind his manners or mind the economy. Unconventional and nonconformist manners might make him appear to be one of the common people and the antithesis of authoritarianism when times are good, but they could soon be resented as irresponsible and coarse by the same populace when the going gets tough.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University.
by Kim Meen-geon