[Viewpoint] Don’t be distracted by populism

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[Viewpoint] Don’t be distracted by populism

President Lee Myung-bak seems to be in high spirits these days after a long interval.

Though Lee has been eager to work from the beginning of his term of office, he has been held back by disastrous events - scandals over personnel appointments, candlelight vigils against U.S. beef imports and a worldwide financial meltdown.

However, these catastrophes have finally vanished over the horizon. President Lee held funeral services amicably for his two predecessors, and he is dealing in a determined and sophisticated manner with North Korea, which has shaken up the political situation on the Korean Peninsula with its nuclear program.

Fortunately, as his new catch-phrases “pragmatic middle course” and “pro-civilian policy stance” have already won considerable public support, his approval ratings, which had plunged to all-time lows, have also surged in recent weeks. This is the best working environment he could hope for.

However, approval rating during one’s term is, for a single-term presidency, like a mirage in the desert. High or low approval ratings won’t extend or shorten the president’s term in power. What is left in history for the current five-year single-term president as prescribed by the Constitution at the end of his term in office is a final comprehensive evaluation from the public, rather than a curve line on a graph that displays the president’s approval ratings fluctuating according to public sentiment.

What history remembers is not floating graphs displaying data on popularity but a president’s accomplishments during his tenure. If he wants to be remembered by history, a president must concentrate his intense attention on what he is seeking to achieve while in office, rather than being bent on raising his short-term popularity. The goal he should be trying to achieve is the task entrusted to him by people who elected him president.

In the election, the people chose Lee as the president who would help save the national economy. Thus the highest goal to which he aspires should be to save our crippled economy, and his accomplishments will be evaluated based on how well he did so.

Recently, the government seems to believe that its populist policies have made a huge contribution to raising the president’s popularity, especially since they all revolve around the catchphrase “in the interests of the people.”

Reductions in taxes and fines for negligence, amnesty granted to traffic offenders, an easing of the terms of scholarship loans, and the prohibition of large-scale corporations from penetrating new markets are prime examples. The government overlooks any petty crimes and goes along with unfair requests as long as the offenders are regular citizens.

But even if a policy goes against Lee’s fundamental principles, he fails to notice that it may damage his chances at achieving his true goal - surviving the slowing economy. The economy can become stronger only when laws and regulations are obeyed. If Lee accepts illegal, unprincipled acts in a bid to raise his approval levels, the foundation of economic order will collapse and the lowest classes will be the most hurt by the ensuing damage.

A president being popular is not a bad thing, of course. The unwavering support of the public will be truly helpful for the president. However, populist policies purely aimed at raising approval ratings may become impediments to the realization of the tasks that the president is supposed to be pursuing. Right now, the president will likely be reluctant to enact policies to accomplish those goals if they lead to momentary difficulties for citizens.

The late President Roh Moo-hyun, who fancied himself a president who kept the well-being of the people foremost on his mind, declared that the “best social welfare measure is to create more job opportunities” at the beginning of his tenure. Although his populist measures led to reckless welfare spending and caused his party to collapse into political factions, he did define “good populism” better than we could.

Unless “policies for the people” are nothing more than sweet talk aimed at raising short-term popularity, Lee should bear in mind that the creation of more job opportunities is the best policy for citizen welfare. No matter how hard the public cries out for the government to protect them, it can do nothing better than to create more jobs.

So how can we do this?

When a company expands its investments, playing a key role in helping boost the ailing economy, more new jobs will be created. In this case no special measures are required to protect and uphold the well-being of citizens. This should be the ultimate goal of any comprehensive policy designed to boost the struggling national economy.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who became a successful politician through pragmatic middle-ground politics, said after his retirement from office that his greatest achievement was the creation of 22 million new jobs while in office. It is our sincere hope that President Lee will be proud of his achievements, too, and be able to say, “I have created a huge number of jobs for the well-being of the citizens while in office.”

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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