[Outlook]A president is not a CEO

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[Outlook]A president is not a CEO

When President Lee Myung-bak was elected he earned 5.3 million more votes than the runner-up in the election. That was the biggest margin of victory in Korea’s history, with the exception of the fourth presidential election, in which leading Democratic Party candidate Cho Byeong-ok suddenly died just days before the election.

On June 3, 100 days will have passed since the president took office. It took less than three months for President Lee’s support rating to be halved. It now stands at 23 percent according to a May 14 survey conducted by the Grand National Party’s research center, the Youido Institute. He earned 48.7 percent of the vote in the election, but his support rating has already plummeted to the 20 percent level.

A close aide to the president was upset, wondering why the survey had to be conducted in the midst of the U.S. beef chaos. But would things have been different if this issue didn’t exist? Other similar surveys tell us it wouldn’t.

The administration promised to revitalize economy, but oil prices keep rising. When he was running for the presidency, Lee pledged to achieve a 7 percent growth rate and a national per-capita income of $40,000 while raising Korea to be the world’s seventh-largest economy.

What’s going on now is a far cry from what he promised. The new administration didn’t even have a grace period before its approval rating nosedived. It is also doubtful the administration has the capacity to overcome the crisis and show its true colors. It will be fortunate if the people’s harsh criticism serves as medicine for the administration.

The administration is heavily dependent on the so-called CEO president. A lot of people share the view that Korean enterprises are not the best, but that they’re still much better than Korean politics. But not everything can be solved the way a CEO would address problems in his company. Enterprises and politics are different arenas. The pragmatism pursued by a CEO is only a means, not a goal. Deng Xiaoping’s black cat-white cat theory was meaningful because capitalism was grafted onto socialism. But Korea has a market economy and thus the idea is not as meaningful for us.

A CEO can push things forward for a certain period of time whether they succeed or not. He can create new organizations, shut down old ones and lay people off. Everything is O.K. as long as he pursues profits ? a pragmatic goal.

But being a president is different. The people are not his employees whom he can hire or fire at will. Whether they voted for him or not, all of them are owners of the country.

When he met with senior GNP advisors on May 13, President Lee said that he has no competition. This is true. But one might ask, “So what?” In politics, the winner can’t and shouldn’t reign over people like an emperor. He or she can’t even expel rivals like a CEO does. The winner can’t ask rivals to obey him, nor form the “executive board” only with people close to him. A good competition ends with engagement, not an order to obey.

A CEO’s power comes from money, but a politician’s doesn’t. A politician finds power in the support of the general public. In a democracy, he must reflect many people’s opinions on state affairs and expand his support base.

Not all who voted for President Lee in the election are his supporters. Many of them voted for him just because they were disillusioned with the former administration. The results of the last legislative elections showed this clearly. But President Lee has been acting like a CEO all along, taking what he thinks is necessary and abandoning what he feels is not. During the GNP nomination process, he “laid off” his rival’s camp.

Replacing old members with fresh faces is important in the process of party nominations. But the standards must be fair and applied to everyone equally. If standards are strictly applied only to those who are not favored, they become simple excuses to get rid of opponents. President Lee is still struggling with this issue. He is not even big enough to make a phone call, which would be enough to reach out to his rival.

A CEO doesn’t need to be picky about his people as long as they are good at making money. But ministers are different. They should have ethics. Young students should be able to respect and emulate them. Still, judging from the beef crisis, the ministers don’t even seem good at “making profits.”

A CEO can push ahead what he deems the right decision. If conflicts arise, the court will decide what is right and wrong. Logical conclusions can be found. But in politics, leaders must console the public. Even when their claims are not sensible or rational, politicians must listen to them and persuade them. But the Blue House is far from adopting a conciliatory stance. It is losing its balance because of its “influential shareholders.”

A CEO can recall a product if it has a defect. If a company wants to build a cross-country waterway, but tries to deceive people by saying it is only conservation work on rivers, the company will be in deep trouble.

Without public support, the most important resource, the government can’t expect new “investment.” A CEO takes responsibility for what he has done. He can’t pass the blame onto his predecessor. The president must ask incompetent ministers to take responsibility.

What’s even more important is for the president to be generous enough to embrace all the people. If he doesn’t, problems will remain unresolved.

*The writer is the senior political and international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook
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