[Viewpoint] How to survive in a single term

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[Viewpoint] How to survive in a single term

A single-term presidency is full of contradictions. As soon as power is grasped, it quickly starts to slip through the fingers. A president becomes experienced and confident in office by the third year. By the fourth year, new ambitions and aspirations arise, fanning the desire to hold onto power. But in a single-term system, the unmistakable signs of lame duck status arrive. It is the inevitable paradox of a single five-year presidency.

The first symptom of lame duck status is a president’s loss of control of the ruling party. This often shows itself at times of presidential appointments. An ambition politician can make his name by challenging the appointment, saying he’s standing up for reform, and leaving an impression on voters. After all, power struggles within the ruling party make news. Any bid to challenge the president and his orders intrigues the public. A name is guaranteed to be made if the ambitious politician succeeds in whittling down the president’s authority. Ambitious members of the Grand National Party will be tempted to give it a try.

Past liberal governments under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun all experienced such challenges in their fourth years. President Lee Myung-bak is facing the same trial this year. His first appointment - of Chung Tong-gi as chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection - failed because of opposition led by GNP head Ahn Sang-soo. But Ahn’s motives were far from reform-minded and were largely aimed at making up for a series of much-publicized blunders he recently made.

The Blue House abhors the term lame duck. Past presidents hung tightly onto power until their final days, valiantly resisting that image. They tried to avoid the curse of the single-term presidency, but each one of them failed. To avoid being a lame duck requires delicate and sophisticated maneuvering. It starts with a visionary agenda and the way a president sells his vision. Then the president must expedite the policies with care and concentration.

In the middle of this ruling party power struggle, the main opposition Democratic Party is busy packaging and marketing a platform of free-for-all welfare goodies for next year’s elections. Welfare has been a signature issue for former GNP head Park Geun-hye. In order to make its own, the DP came up with more radical and populist ideas. They are correspondingly riskier and more unreliable.

The president already is equipped with policy weapons to counter the welfare attack. He has been aggressively pursuing pragmatic policies for the working class. The welfare programs touted by the opposition also focus on common people. But too much talk and exaggerated attention to public needs come across as theatrics and make people skeptical. This is not the first time politicians have tried fooling voters.

Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of free lunches for all students. It means children from wealthy families will be fed by taxes paid by the working class. We have to decide what policies are needed for the public welfare. What people need and can benefit from is job security. Agenda-selling is part of the political game. If the president ducks the issue entirely, he will inevitably find himself a lame duck.

Politics takes form through language. The president’s use of language can prevent a waning of his power. The less time he has in his term, the more important the president’s language is. But the president has been too profligate with his language. His spokesman has been relaying his orders daily on everything from energy conservation to rescue measures for a Korean vessel hijacked by Somali pirates.

His aides may want to highlight their president’s alertness and attentiveness to various issues. But constant statements can only undermine the authority of the president’s words. The public looks for significance from the president’s comments.

Communication and connection with the people are not achieved through a constant presence. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was a great public speaker. His words inspired public opinion, touching a chord in his countrymen to get their support. President Barack Obama is a great student of Reagan-style eloquence with inspiring but restrained rhetoric.

The Blue House came under fire for misrepresenting the president’s comments after North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. His spokesman relayed his response word for word: “The president has said avoid expanding the conflict and try to contain the situation well.” Reagan’s aides would have presented the same postcrisis message in different light: “The president is furious, but is addressing the problem with composure.”

A five-year single term can be a comma rather than a period. It depends on how the president wants to end it. There could be a different ending if he exercises will, dexterity and vision throughout his term.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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