[Outlook]Contrasts in leadership

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[Outlook]Contrasts in leadership

Barack Obama and America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, appear to have a lot in common, both on the surface and in leadership style. And both stand in sharp contrast to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Obama makes great efforts to emulate President Lincoln, who, like Obama, came from Illinois. Both were little known before making their national runs. Obama came to the scene when, as a state senator, he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The speech emphasized the need to come together as a nation instead of staying separated by the artificial divisions of red states and blue states.

Obama’s speech was inspired by Lincoln’s speech when he ran for the Illinois Senate seat as a Republican in 1858. Lincoln spoke on slavery, warning America of catastrophic consequence of division. In the 1860 Republican primary, Lincoln had trailed William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates. But after he overtook them and became president, Lincoln surprised the country by naming Seward as secretary of state, Chase as secretary of the treasury and Bates as attorney general. The state, treasury and the justice departments are three power centers of the executive branch.

A reporter from the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he appointed his rivals to core cabinet positions. He responded that he needed the most powerful people to bring citizens together. He said he had no right to deprive them of the opportunity to serve their country. Such a philosophy made Lincoln one of the most respected politicians of all time.

Lincoln’s predecessor, President James Buchanan, warned that trying to please political rivals by offering them high positions would only aggravate divisions. Lincoln responded that he would have to accept some personal friction for the greater good of solving a national crisis.

President-elect Obama has followed Lincoln’s example. He named Hillary Clinton, with whom Mr. Obama competed in the party primary, to the position of secretary of state. His decision to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his cabinet is just as refreshing and surprising.

Obama, ideologically a moderate leftist, is in the process of organizing a bipartisan cabinet. Currently, many of the progressives who share his political position have been appointed to lower positions than cabinet posts.

Progressives are complaining that they have been betrayed. However, the moves might illustrate how Obama has done his job right.

In contrast, I think of how President Lee treated primary rival Park Geun-hye. And then I consider his cabinet. President Lee swept to a landslide victory, garnering 5.3 million more votes than his runner-up. But he does not seem to be comfortable unless he is surrounded by fellow Korea University alums, Somang Church goers and Yeongnam natives.

Philosopher and politician Jeong Do-jeon of the late Goryeo and early Joseon period wrote in the Administrative Code of Joseon, “When a ruler appoints a minister, if he seeks someone who suits his personal tastes and does not search for someone who corrects him, the ruler is not fulfilling his duty.” (From “Jeong Do-jeon, the Politician” by Choi Sang-yong and Park Hong-gyu) In today’s context, the ruler is the president and the minister is the cabinet. It is cliche that a wise king makes wise appointments, and the beauty of politics can be found in how the leader makes personnel decisions. The problem is that a political leader who follows common sense is so rare in Korea.

President Lee seems to be planning a cabinet reshuffle. Even if he faces complaints from his friends from Korea University, Somang Church and former co-workers at Seoul City Government, the president should organize a new team based on competency instead of native region, age or academic background. If he does so, the government might not look so incompetent and incoherent.

Of course, an able person should not be shunned because he shares a background with the president. The criterion should be competency, not shared background. In this regard, it is frustrating that former lawmaker Lee Jae-oh, who used to be the closest aide to President Lee, is reportedly coming back. If the president appoints an inappropriate figure to a ministerial position, the delicate mechanism of governing cannot work properly.

There are so many talented people out there, but the president is not looking at the greater pool.

Before President Lee announces the cabinet reshuffle, I would like to recommend that he read three books, if he has not done so already: Doris Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” Han Yeong-u’s “Study on Jeong Do-jeon’s Philosophy,” and Choi Sang-yong and Park Hong-gyu’s “Jeong Do-jeon, the Politician.”

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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