[Viewpoint] Merits over campaign contributions

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[Viewpoint] Merits over campaign contributions

On the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stood before a throng of cheering supporters in Chicago, his power base, after winning the presidential election.

At this historic moment, he openly mentioned two people behind his successful campaign: David Axelrod and David Plouffe.

Axelrod served as the chief strategist for Obama’s campaign, while Plouffe was the campaign manager.

Obama openly expressed his appreciation for what he called “the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics.”

But it was in fact a declaration on the emergence of new powers in the U.S. political sphere.

If this had happened in Korea, many people would have attempted to get close to the two men the new president had named.

So what are Axelrod and Plouffe doing today, nearly two years after Obama cited their contributions to his success in a speech?

Axelrod is still working closely with Obama, focusing on domestic policy strategy as a White House senior adviser. Plouffe, who is still in his 40s, turned down the offer to serve in the administration so that he could spend more time with his family.

However, as Obama gears up for crucial midterm elections in November, he has turned to his former campaign manager for help once again. Plouffe specializes in organizing election campaigns, and he is now working to unite Democratic supporters.

I had a chance to meet with Plouffe earlier this year at a lecture, and he spoke about the tendency of voters and the overall election structure.

In general, people who organize and run campaigns do the same work after the election as they did before it, he said.

In other words, they continue to do what they are good at.

In U.S. society, no one expects these people to become cabinet members or get involved in, say, foreign policy.

Choosing people for high-profile positions based on talent, skills and experience - rather than as a reward for running a successful campaign - is more common in the United States than it is in Korea. Sure, it’s not too difficult to find the names of Obama’s friends from Harvard Law School and Chicago on the list of government officials and ambassadors.

However, you don’t see the same types of ugly struggles and aggressive competition among campaign organizers in the United States as you do in Korea.

In the United States, many of those who contributed heavily to successful elections are rewarded with appropriate positions in the government. Julius Genachowski, for instance, went to Harvard Law School with Obama. When Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, Genachowski was a notes editor.

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Genachowski was the chairman of the technology, media and telecommunications policy working group.

When Obama came into office, he trusted Genachowski with the very important job of heading up the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as chairman. Genachowski certainly has a long personal relationship with President Obama, but he also worked for the FCC for several years.

During the election campaign, the Obama camp had a great security team consisting of retired four-star generals who had served in the army, navy and air force. Obama thought that his biggest vulnerability was a lack of experience in foreign policy and security, so he made extra efforts to bring in former military commanders.

George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, even continued to serve in Obama’s administration.

Obama was grateful to the generals who helped his election campaign. But with several conflicts in the Middle East, the new president decided that it would be best if Gates remained in that position during his administration.

In any organization - including the government - the chief should naturally pick and choose the most qualified people for each position.

Therefore, leaders should enjoy figuring out the right person for each position and the right time to bring people into certain jobs. They can then enjoy the fruits of such labor later.

But if a leader makes a wrong decision, he or she must prepare for the consequences of making an incorrect choice.

As we witness the shameful fall of “election contributors” in Korea, we should realize that granting powerful positions based on contributions to a campaign could have disastrous consequences.

*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Jung-wook
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