[Viewpoint] The incredible shrinking presidency‘The ruling party suffered a crushing defeat in local elections. I was watching the World Cup games behind the president with a phone in my hand. I had to check on the situation in the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall, where tens of thousands gathered to cheer on the Korean team.
“The Seoul police chief called up just before the match and began to ask if public cheering in the plaza should be allowed. I was really annoyed. I wanted to shout, ‘Why are you asking the Blue House?’ To make matters worse, we had another skirmish with the North off the west coast. The president’s sole diversion was watching the football match.”
This is not an account of an incumbent presidential aide. It is a story told by Park Jie-won, who was chief secretary for President Kim Dae-jung during the Korea-Japan World Cup in June 2002.
Fast forward four years, when a bunch of reporters were talking with President Roh Moo-hyun on Feb. 26, 2006, months before the June local elections.
“I think a five-year term is a little long for a president,” Roh sighed. “You say the elections are a midterm evaluation. They are, in essence, an approval rating of the president. It’s really difficult to get through elections during the presidential term. The five-year term is meaningless. I can’t push forward with my work when people say it can affect election results. It really is a damper.”
It’s deja vu at the Blue House four years later. President Lee Myung-bak’s signature projects to dredge and dam four rivers and legislate an entirely new plan for Sejong City have been put on hold following the devastating defeat of the ruling Grand National Party in local elections two weeks ago.
A crushing defeat of the ruling party, a brake on a president’s ambitious plans, constant demands for reshuffles within the ruling party and at the Blue House - the news flow is exactly the same except for the date at the top of the paper.
President Lee may feel a little betrayed. Kim Dae-jung was dogged by a scandal regarding his son. Roh Moo-hyun had many enemies. But Lee won a multibillion-dollar reactor project, secured the chairmanship for the G-20 Summit and steered the economy out of the meltdown triggered by the Wall Street financial crisis.
In the presidential election, Lee defeated his Democratic Party rival by 5.3 million votes and won a majority in the National Assembly. He has the image of the most powerful president since direct elections were introduced in 1987. He cannot be blamed for being a little too proud.
Proud people, including politicians, tend to see what they want to see, and the president has failed to perceive the changes in the political landscape. We now live in an age where the president’s authority can quickly wither, yet Lee maintains an approval rating of more than 45 percent, even after the election setback.
But the other half disapproves of him no matter what he does. Supporters of the conservative ruling GNP account for about 40 percent of the population, while those for the liberal opposition parties make up another 40 percent, and the remaining 20 percent occupies the neutral middle ground.
No matter how hard the president tries, he can at best garner support from half of the population.
We can no longer expect a president to enjoy an approval rating of more than 80 percent, as was the case in the Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung days.
A president’s regional background is also no longer a guarantee of political safety. In the traditionally conservative enclaves of Busan, South Gyeongsang and Gangwon, 53.5 percent, 44.6 percent and 54.36 percent of voters, respectively, opted for candidates unrelated to the president’s party. Daegu and Busan have also grown apart, and Chungcheong, another conservative bastion, turned against the president a long time ago. Now a new wave of conflicts of interests among regions is practically reshaping the constituency map, as well as how elections are won or lost.
A widening generation gap also works against the president. Young voters blame him for failing to cut college tuition fees and create jobs, and when the time came for these youngsters to vote, they revolted against the president.
The president must start to understand young voters whose political views are swayed by their practical needs. He also must know what makes them angry, such as the cancellation of pro-Roh Moo-hyun entertainer Kim Je-dong’s television program.
The late former President Roh used to say that a president’s job is a pain in the neck. That view may be shared by the current occupant of the Blue House.
Presidents today may be forced to lament how powerless they have become, when modesty and patience are no longer virtues. The president should then do what he wants to do, since no matter what, he will take blame.
*The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Saturday section J.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Choi Hoon