[Viewpoint] The clock is tickingPresident Lee Myung-bak has entered the second half of his single five-year term. The clock usually ticks away faster in the second half, just as a downhill walk feels quicker than the trudge uphill.
A new government with fresh charm always has a honeymoon period among an expectant public at the beginning of its term.
A smart leader would use this amiable period to push forward ambitious aspirations. This government - with its leader coming from the business world - was largely expected to excel in economic matters. But the global financial crisis prevented the administration from giving its best shot at curing the economy. Of course, the Lee administration helped Korea squeeze through the crisis more swiftly than other economies.
The administration spent most of its first half (to use a sports metaphor) trying to deal with public protests - first with the mad cow scare and later controversies over Sejong City legislation and the four rivers project. The Lee government must be feeling restless, facing the second half without really scoring in the first.
The administration is attempting strategic changes in the second half, first with a new lineup of players (cabinet members) and next in policy. First, the president supported his desire to build up his personal clout by filling the cabinet with his own men. Then he shifted the direction of his governance to focus on improving and aiding the lives of the working class.
Lee chose a forty-something prime minister, suggesting that he wants to play kingmaker in the next presidential election. He could have selected a prime minister who would better aid him in administering, or he could have named a person who would promote social unity or make up for Lee’s various weaknesses in office.
Instead, political calculation drove his choice for the new prime minister. Lee’s action sped up the race to find the future leaders of the ruling party, creating internal competition and doubts about the president. Other potential candidates will now question whether the president will remain neutral in the process of choosing his successor. The road through the second half looks so bumpy, in fact, that there’s even potential that the ruling party breaks up.
In his Liberation Day address, the president used “fair society” as a catch phrase and emphasized that his government will concentrate on improving the economy for its citizens. He might have sensed that the public blames the government for widening the nation’s wealth gap in the process of protecting the economy from the external shock of the global financial crisis.
By turning attention to the consumer economy, Lee may be aiming to recover some popularity that usually disappears in the latter part of a presidential term. And no one would argue against the president trying to make the lives of citizens better. But the problem is the approach. Grappling with a wealth gap and aiding normal households take time and resources.
The measures also must be in tune with the overall economic outlook. The government has to invest in technology, bio and environmental fields to hone the country’s future industrial competitiveness, education for future human resources, and in transportation and communication networks to upgrade social infrastructure.
Is the president abandoning those national missions to concentrate more on dividing wealth more equally? Or does he have a miracle solution to make everything happen at once? The state would have to interfere more in the economy to bring more wealth equality. A promise to sustain economic progress was what put this administration in power in the first place.
The leadership may be fearful of losing time, and that’s why it’s putting pedal to the metal and making reckless turns. But to avoid a crash, it should maintain its cool. All governments lose steam in the latter half of their terms. The government should concentrate on a smooth exit. The Lee Myung-bak administration’s role now is to help the conservatives retain power for at least another five years.
Just as human beings take time to grow, a country needs time to develop. Our nation should join the ranks of advanced countries within the next decade. There are too many other economies closing in on us, and we may never get another chance if we skip this opportunity.
The pain and suffering of youth are rewarded in adulthood. This is true for nations, too. However hard, we must still endure the pains of growth. The president’s goal was the country’s advancement. He must do his part by creating a bridge for the next administration, which will maybe then accomplish his goal.
His wobbling at the beginning of the second half is difficult to watch. I have to question his motives for creating fissures among conservatives by accelerating the leadership race. No matter how hard he tries, his time is up in two years. He should think about making an honorable exit.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk