[Viewpoint] An image overhaul for President LeeIt is good to prioritize the economy. All the people want the economy to be restored. But it alone is not sufficient to earn the people’s support. Leaders must put their minds and souls into solving economic problems by understanding the joy and agony of the general public. Leaders must commit to improving the tough lives of the middle class and the underprivileged. The Lee Myung-bak administration has not made such a commitment, and now the time has passed for first impressions. The administration is now in the middle of a controversy, with people accusing it of elitism.
The people who mourned the late former President Roh Moo-hyun share this sentiment. The grief of the countless crowds symbolizes the longing and desire of the underprivileged at the bottom of our society. Roh was a guardian and protector for these poor and powerless people. He was a warrior of resistance who challenged and confronted the powerful for the weak.
The general public’s compassion creates such myths. But there is a difference between these myths and the actual outcomes of policies. When the Roh administration was in office, the economy was in turmoil for the common worker, too. The administration tried to keep prices of apartments in affluent parts of southern Seoul under control, but due to its sloppy policies, prices doubled instead. It wanted to side with commoners but instead it made their lives tougher. Social polarization worsened. The administration frustrated the people, contrary to what it had meant to do.
The former president’s suicide made the public more generous and understanding. The sentiment of the public has changed drastically. The people want to find Roh’s spirit anew. They enthusiastically accept his policy for the common people as a great challenge. They believe his attempt failed because of powerful people’s resistance. In Korea, great causes are often regarded as more important than actual facts. The Lee administration’s image as a regime for the well-off has helped lead society to oppose the rich and the powerful.
The image of working together for the poor has explosive political power. When it catches hold of the public’s hearts, this idea can never fall. On the other hand, the image of working with and for only the rich only is poisonous. The Lee administration is in such a situation, having failed in the war of image.
Easing comprehensive real estate taxes was a start. The government has said it would correct the punitive taxation system. This is a legitimate move to fix a wrong system and create a right, normal one. But the administration did not try hard enough to reassure the doubts of common people and comfort them when they felt they were being left out. The administration did not present follow-up measures for the poor and the middle class. It did not work to remove the disconnect between the rich and the poor, and between leftists and rightists.
The Lee administration’s image does include diligence, pragmatism over ideology and pre-emptive measures for economic recovery. However, these are not sufficient to touch the people’s hearts. The limits of such an image were revealed a long time ago, and proven when the ruling Grand National Party experienced a crushing defeat in the April 29 by-elections, losing even in the Bupyeong, Incheon district.
The administration’s image is far from what the common people want. And the administration is indecisive when making crucial decisions. It did not respond with determination to Kim Jong-il’s nuclear threats. The Lee administration does not demonstrate a strong will to respond to North Korea on its own. It seems to rely only on the South Korea-U.S. alliance and international cooperation.
Politics is about making choices. Government is a series of decisions. The Lee administration must change its image. The administration must become down-to-earth to appeal to the common people, who expect leaders to make crucial decisions.
Government is also about governing one’s own words. U.S. President Barack Obama is skilled at this. Using Abraham Lincoln as his model, the U.S. president says that his great predecessor saved his divided country through willpower and the power of words. Roh’s simple suicide note makes one realize the power of words, as countless people gathered to mourn over his demise.
When he was young, President Lee was as poor as Roh was. President Lee has achieved many legendary successes. But he failed to use such experiences to win the hearts of the people when governing the country. When he was sworn into office, he announced a project to help the poor and self-employed who had difficulty making ends meet. But the purpose of it has been forgotten. Amid a global economic crisis, Korea’s economy defended itself quite well. Some predicted that Korea’s economy would be restored the fastest among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member countries. But inside our country, the government is not working hard enough for its people.
The administration must start reforming by prioritizing the people and by making leadership more decisive. It will be problematic if the administration cannot overcome its current reputation. The powerful are suffering from premature aging. They must secure a new beginning.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon