[Viewpoint] Two presidents with two problems

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[Viewpoint] Two presidents with two problems

Everyone has a long-held wish or dream, but not many are lucky enough to fulfill them. Unfortunately, passion and hard work often aren’t enough in themselves. One must have luck on his side. Great leaders are no exceptions. Reckless endeavors because a leader misreads the political winds can taint a name for all time. Successful leaders are often those who are lucky in gauging those winds. “A true hero is someone who knows his time,” remarked strategy genius Zhuge Liang in the historic fiction work, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak this week saw their respective campaign ambitions finally take off. In Washington, President Obama’s health reform agenda passed the House, almost 100 years after former President Theodore Roosevelt campaigned in vain for an affordable health care system. In Korea, ground was broken on the ambitious project to build reservoirs and dams along the country’s four major rivers as a part of President Lee’s Green New Deal.

But the starting time is not the only thing the two president-led projects have in common. First of all, the more the leaders push ahead with their plans, the more public fallout they face. According to a Rasmussen poll, President Obama’s popularity ratings dipped below 50 percent for the first time in July, sinking to 47 percent in September. The president’s fans turned to critics during town hall meetings in August over his health plans. President Lee has been on the same path. His overwhelming approval rating of 80 percent in the early stages of his term took a beating every time he brought up his centerpiece idea of building a waterway across the country or the toned-down alternative project of renovating the four rivers.

Both leaders firmly believe in the economic benefits of their reform plans. President Lee says that the four river project epitomizes green growth that can aid both the economy and environment. He took “Water’s Future” by French author Erik Orsenna on his trip to New York for the Climate Change Conference. The book contends that the 21st century is an era of water. One out of six humans on this earth doesn’t have enough water. A country has no future if it doesn’t prepare for water shortages.

For his part, President Obama has been campaigning that a health insurance overhaul should be considered an investment in the future rather than an expense. He believes health care reform can revitalize the medical industry and the country’s competitiveness. The two leaders also face similar drawbacks to their plans. Their expeditions are expensive at a time cash is short. Obama’s health plan will cost about $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. The government, having little wiggle room after pouring $2 trillion into financial bailouts, will raise taxes on the rich to fund the program. Seoul estimates the four rivers project will cost over 22 trillion won ($19 billion) by 2012. Its coffers are also pretty low, having spent 50 trillion won to boost the economy this year. It has used funds from the Water Resources Corp. to help sponsor the project and has withdrawn a plan to lower taxes on the wealthy.

Both leaders couldn’t have chosen a worse time to launch ambitious projects. The economy should be in better shape before multibillion-dollar projects commence. But job data released last week showed the U.S. jobless rate at a 26-year high of over 10 percent. Fewer jobs mean fewer shoppers. Consumer spending makes up 70 percent of the American economy, which suggests the light at the end of the tunnel is still far away. A prolonged recession in the U.S. market also bodes ill for our own export-driven economy.

Obama’s health reform plan still faces problems in the Senate. But it cannot wait because the plan could completely dissolve if a slow economy demands further federal spending. We have more leeway with the four river project. The water resource project is a necessary and significant task, but it’s not pressing; we can afford to go slow instead of injecting 6 to 7 trillion won a year. We need to save financial resources because it’s still uncertain if the economy has turned the corner. A dream fulfilled is what matters, not how fast the dream comes true.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jung-jae
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