An ‘economic president’ who’s bad with politics

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An ‘economic president’ who’s bad with politics


Three years ago today, President Lee Myung-bak took office vowing to be an “economic president.” And he proved true to his word, guiding Korea through the global economic crisis and bringing it back to strong economic growth. His approval ratings are high.

But the lowest mark on the Lee administration’s report card is how he plays politics. And in the remaining two years of the former business executive’s term, he’ll need sharper political skills than before - particularly an ability to communicate with the public and negotiate with the opposition - to avoid becoming a lame duck.

“Lee is a very good example of a CEO leadership,” said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership. “Pragmatism, effectiveness and a driving force are the strengths of a CEO-style leader, but the lack of communication and emotion are the weaknesses.”

His main challenges ahead are getting the National Assembly to ratify free trade agreements with the United States and the EU. He also wants constitutional amendments to end the presidency’s one-term limit and to divide power between the president and prime minister, which will surely face major opposition in the Assembly.


And without the major diplomatic achievements that marked Lee’s first three years, like hosting the G-20 Summit in Seoul last year and boosting ties with the U.S., bread-and-butter issues will be more important to the general public in the next two years.

“The people were preoccupied with many grand events such as the hosting of G-20 Summit last year,” said a senior Blue House official. “But this year, we won’t have a major event that will unite the people, while measures to fight inflation and skyrocketing housing prices and to create jobs became more and more important. And they are issues directly linked to people’s everyday lives, and we understand communicating with the public is crucial.”

“This government lacks the ability to listen to the public,” said Kang Won-taek, professor of political science at Seoul National University. “People think what they are interested in and worry about are different from what the president is interested in and worries about. So the people feel a great distance from the president.”

Recent polls show the public approves of Lee’s performance as the “CEO president.” According to a Feb. 19 poll by Hankook Research, 44.7 percent of the public rates his performance positively, which is spectacular compared to his predecessors’ ratings at the same point in their terms. And the people expect Lee to continue to be strong on economic issues.

Asked what Lee’s priority should be for this year, 20.7 percent said it should be shrinking income inequality, while 19 percent said more economic growth. Another 15.9 percent said he should work on improving the quality of life.

A fewer number of respondents said Lee should work on boosting national security, unifying the people, improving inter-Korean relations and education and political reforms.

Analysts praise Lee’s achievements bringing Korea’s economy through the global financial meltdown. But they say his weak political touch is the president’s Achilles’ heel.

“Lee simply lacks the ability to persuade, compromise and communicate,” said Kang of Seoul National University. “If he didn’t want to be a political leader, he should have delegated the job to the ruling Grand National Party and they could talk and negotiate with opposition parties. But he didn’t. State affairs, therefore, became unproductive in many ways.”

In his first three years, Lee faced significant political failures on major projects. Last year, Lee wanted the National Assembly to scrap a law mandating a new administrative capital in Sejong City, which would have moved most government ministries out of Seoul. Opposition from other parties and a faction in his own GNP scuttled that plan.

The failure of the so-called Sejong City revision led to the resignation of Prime Minister Chung Un-chan and widened the factional rift within the GNP.

Lack of communication and compromise with the National Assembly, where his party has a majority, also resulted in a series of failures to appoint top government officials. During Lee’s three years in office, he made 60 requests to the legislature to confirm appointments of top officials, but eight nominees were either rejected by the Assembly or bowed out after fierce and embarrassing attacks at confirmation hearings. Last year alone, four of Lee’s nominees failed to get confirmed, including Kim Tae-ho as prime minister and Chung Tong-gi as head of the Board of Audit and Inspection.

“Lee’s strengths were most effective in foreign affairs, while in domestic affairs he had a series of political debacles,” said Choi of the Institute of Presidential Leadership. “Many of his achievements, such as hosting the G-20 Summit, exporting nuclear reactor technology and bolstering the alliance with the United States, were in the arena of foreign affairs.”

The Grand National Party and the Blue House admit the president’s communication skills are a shortcoming that need improvement.

“During the past three years, the GNP and the government tried their best to overcome the economic crisis and stabilize the ‘livelihood economy,’ but there is still more to do to make the people really feel the changes” said Ahn Sang-soo, the GNP’s chairman. “We must improve communication with the people, particularly with civic groups. And the party, the government and the Blue House must cooperate to create policies based on the people’s demands and desires and implement them proactively.”

“Effective communication between the Blue House and the party, cooperation with the opposition parties and efforts to unite the people were lacking,” said Representative Cho Hae-jin, spokesman for GNP. “So Lee should focus on reconciling with his opponents in the next two years,”.

The Blue House also admits the need for better communication with the public. “Although Korea was one of the first countries to overcome the global economic crisis and the nation’s prestige was heightened by the successful hosting of the Group of 20 Summit last year, there were opinions that the Lee administration was weak in uniting society and in inter-Korean relations,” the Blue House said in a press release marking the administration’s third anniversary. “We will try to explain to the public the major policies implemented in the past three years and right our shortcomings.”

Opposition parties all criticize the Lee administration for its poor communication and unwillingness to compromise.

“Lee turned the nation into a landscape of conflicts over his key projects, such as the four-rivers restoration project and Sejong City,” said the DP’s floor leader, Park Jie-won. “And in such a situation, Lee keeps bringing up constitutional amendments, and I deplore this. Instead of beginning a new project, I want him to spend the remaining two years of his term to conduct state affairs with communication and harmony.”

The conservative opposition Liberty Forward Party agreed. “During the past three years, the people were completely ignored,” said Park Sun-young, the party’s spokeswoman.

It remains to be seen how much Lee can reinvent himself as a political leader. “I was not a politician, but a worker,” Lee said in a television appearance on Feb. 1. “Just as when I ran for Seoul mayor, I won the presidential election with pledges to improve the ‘livelihood economy’ and employment as an economic president, so I have taken a different path from the country’s long political tradition. And that’s why the people chose me.”

For many outstanding and contentious issues, including selecting the sites for a new international science complex and a new hub airport in the country’s south, Lee said the decisions wouldn’t be political but pragmatic.

Analysts say that Lee has to start recognizing his political opponents as partners in state affairs. “In Korea’s culture of boss politics, the president talking with his opponents is essential,” said Choi of the Institute of Presidential Leadership. “It is an important tool, but it’s gone missing for the past three years.”

In September 2008, Lee met with then-Democratic Party Chairman Chung Sye-kyun for an official summit at the Blue House. Since then, he’s held no talks with opposition leaders. During his Feb. 1 TV appearance, Lee said he was willing to sit down with opposition leaders, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Experts also said mending the rift with former GNP Chairwoman Park Geun-hye was also an urgent task. Park has her own faction within the party that often disagrees with Lee’s initiatives. “For the past three years, the factional strife between Lee and Park supporters has put a strain on Lee’s agenda,” said Choi. “And Lee is more responsible for the situation. Mending the rupture and building trust with Park and her loyalists are key for Lee to delay becoming a lame duck and for the GNP to win another presidential victory.”

The next presidential elections are at the end of 2012.

“In the current political universe, Park is no longer a rising sun. She is already above the horizon,” Choi said. “There are now two suns in the political sky, and imagine the aftermath on Earth and on the people when they collide. Now it is time for Lee to find and use his political skills to avoid a collision course for the next two years.”

By Ser Myo-ja []

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이명박 정부 3주년 평가해보니…

고민 속에 맞는 李대통령의 취임 3주년

이명박 대통령이 오는 25일 `조용한` 취임 3주년을 맞는다. 이 대통령은 이날 확대 비서관 회의를 열고 이어 세르게이 소뱌닌 모스크바 시장을 접견한다.

확대비서관 회의에는 참석 대상인 비서관 뿐 아니라 행정관 이상 대다수 청와대 직원들이 참여한다. 남은 2년을 성공적으로 마무리하기 위한 의지를 다지는 자리가 될 것이라는 전언이다. 이밖에 공식 일정은 없다. 김희정 청와대 대변인은 "3주년을 특별한 날로 생각하기보다 평상시처럼 뚜벅뚜벅 일하겠다는 것이 대통령의 생각"이라고 전했다.

조용한 3주년을 선택했지만 이 대통령을 둘러싼 국정 환경은 `소용돌이`쪽에 가깝다.

집권 후반기 국정 운영을 든든하게 뒷받침 해줘야할 여당은 대통령으로부터 멀어져 가고 있다. `개헌론`으로 `친이`계 결집이 시도되고 있지만 별반 효과가 없다. 지난 20일 이 대통령과 한나라당 최고위원 만찬에서 모처럼 단합을 과시했지만 하루도 가지 못했다. 정두언 최고위원은 불과 하루만인 21일 개헌논의에 불만을 표시하며 "민심과 따로 가면 딴나라당 된다" "대통령과 밥 한번 먹었다고 입장이 바뀌겠냐"고 목소리를 높였다.

동남권 신공항, 과학비즈니스벨트 등 대규모 국책 지역개발 사업도 대통령에게 큰 부담을 안겨주고 있다. 가덕도에 신공항을 유치하려는 부산과 밀양을 지지하는 경북, 경남, 대구, 울산의 유치 경쟁이 과열되고 있다. 영남권이 두개로 쪼개지고 있다는 우려가 나올 정도다.

과학비즈니스 벨트도 대선 공약을 지키라는 충청과 뒤늦게 유치전에 뛰어든 다른 지자체들이 일전을 불사하고 있다. 이 대통령은 법절차에 따라 합리적으로 처리하도록 했지만 자신의 `공약 사항`이라는 `원죄`까지 덮기는 벅차다.

믿을 언덕이던 측근들도 발목을 잡고 있다. 이 대통령의 친구로 막후 실세였던 천신일 세중나모 회장이 지난해 말 구속되더니 올 들어서만 장수만 방위사업청장, 최영 강원랜드 사장, 배건기 청와대 감사팀장 등 최측근들이 비리로 구속되거나 현직에서 물러났다. 대통령의 `복심(腹心)` 중 복심으로 손꼽히는 원세훈 국정원장은 대통령이 극진히 모신 인도네시아 특사단의 호텔 객실을 국정원 직원들이 정보 수집을 위해 침입한 것으로 알려지면서 사임 압력에 시달라고 있다. 친형인 `이상득 의원`도 갈수록 부담이다. 민주당 박지원 원내대표가 22일 교섭단체대표 연설에서 이 의원의 정계 은퇴 촉구하면서 여야 간에 `설전`이 벌어졌다.

무엇보다 경제가 문제다. 이 대통령은 취임 후 `경제 대통령`을 자임하며 경제를 최우선 과제로 챙겨왔다. `여의도 정치권`을 너무 멀리한다는 얘기를 들으면서까지 챙겼던 경제다. 취임 초 글로벌 금융 위기를 빠르게 극복하고, 지난해 G20 정상회의를 성공적으로 치르면서 50%에 육박하는 지지를 받는 든든한 배경이 됐다.

하지만 최근 돌아가는 상황이 심상치 않다. 연초부터 물가가 들썩거리더니 `리비아 사태`로 중동지역 정세가 극도로 불안해졌다. 국제유가는 연일 치솟고 있다. 두바이유 가격은 30개월 만에 배럴당 100달러를 돌파했는데 중동사태가 악화될 경우 지난 2008년 7월 서부텍사스산원유(WTI) 기준 역대 최고치인 배럴당 147.50달러를 넘어설 것이란 전망도 나온다.

유가상승은 전반적인 물가 인상 압박으로 작용할 수밖에 없다. 물가는 체감경기와 직결된다는 점에서 놓칠 수 없는 국정 과제다. 서민 주거를 위협하고 있는 전세대란도 여전하고 사상 초유의 구제역 사태도 여전히 진행형이다.

긍정적인 면도 있다. 집권 4년차를 맞았는데도 국정운영 지지도가 40%대로 과거 어느 정권보다 높다. 김대중, 노무현 대통령의 4년차 지지율은 20~30% 수준이었다. 국정 환경은 어렵지만 어떻게 극복하느냐에 따라 높은 평가를 받을 수 있는 여지도 크다는 얘기다.

이 대통령은 지난 20일 출입기자단과의 오찬 간담회에서 "산을 오르내리는 것이 아니라 평지를 뛰는 자세로 일하겠다"고 말했다. 레임덕(권력누수)을 개의치 않고 일관되게 일하겠다는 뜻이다. 이 대통령은 취임 3주년 전날인 24일 중동 사태와 관련한 긴급 관계 장관회의를 소집했다. 이 대통령의 취임 4년차는 이렇게 숨 가쁘게 시작되고 있다.

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