[Viewpoint] A hollow president

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[Viewpoint] A hollow president

It would be a stretch to compare Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and Barack Obama of the United States. But they seem to have two things in common: falling approval ratings in the final year of their terms and growing disenchantment among the voters who elected them.

It is usual in democratic societies for leaders to lose their novelty at the end of their terms. But the extent of disillusionment with Lee and Obama among their supporters is beyond disappointment and closer to rage. Even the Obama camp is conceding that the chances for reelection are diminishing. The Chicago Tribune, a major newspaper in Obama’s political hometown, carried a cynical column saying the president is not obliged by the U.S. Constitution to run for a second term and warned Democrats about wasting their chance to keep the presidency.

If Korea allowed a second term, Lee would be incapable of winning one unless he has some undisclosed powers of witchcraft. Even hardcore conservatives are turning their backs on the Grand National Party. The public’s discontent became obvious when technocrat Ahn Cheol-soo became a political star overnight just because a friend happened to say he may be interested in running for Seoul mayor. Ahn has no political experience, but like a rabbit out of a hat, he became a political force - because he is not a politician.

An opinion piece in the New York Times last month entitled “What Happened to Obama?” by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, analyzed the average American’s disappointment in the president, especially among liberals. Faced with the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama shrank from a historical opportunity to lead America in a better direction so he could avoid conflict with rivals and, instead, attempted a less strenuous kind of bipartisanship. As a result, what he delivered to Americans was a bundle of half-successful, inconsistent and contradictory policies.

In all areas requiring reform - the national budget, health care, the financial system, taxes, education, energy and immigration - he played the piggy in the middle and failed to win over either liberals or conservatives. As a psychologist and strategic consultant, Westen offered hypotheses as to why Obama was insistent on taking both sides of every issue.

The first explanation Westen gave was that the president and his advisers are eying re-election on the assumption that “centrist voters like centrist politicians.” What they missed, as Westen rightly pointed out, is the fact that “centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems.”

The second assumption was that Obama lacked the necessary experience and character to lead a country in tough times. Americans had hitherto been too bewitched by his eloquence to discern his defects.

Third, Obama assumed the political system was so corrupt that it could contaminate the souls of people with tremendous integrity.

During his campaign, Obama cried out for changes and promised to deliver them with his slogan “Yes, we can.” But he was relentlessly dogged by an intransigent Republican Party and lost his very identity in compromising with his opponents. His health care reform was sabotaged, and he gave in on former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Americans are now staring at a double-dip recession as unemployment remains stubbornly at 9 percent.

Voters in Korea are equally angry, and many regret that they voted for Lee. They say they feel betrayed and deceived. They have no idea what the government is trying to do. Lee and his government are experimenting with this and that in hopes of scoring any possible points with the public. The former protector of corporations suddenly turned himself into a champion of the middle and lower class. Yesterday, his slogan promised a “fair society,” and the next day it called for “symbiotic progress” between rich and poor, big and small. Few people can confidently describe the identity of the Lee administration. Lee’s government is insulting the concept of pragmatism if it wants to call its clumsy and incoherent policies “practical.” What they come down to at this point in the game are elements of vulgar and unconvincing populism.

Those who expected economic competence from Lee are very disappointed. Lee and his administration can blame the global economic circumstances for our problems, but what about worsening inflation, unemployment, and wealth inequalities? Few now remember Lee’s rosy promises of 7 percent growth, $40,000 per capita income and Korea becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy. The only promises Lee stuck to were the four-rivers restoration project, an extension of his successful Cheonggye Stream renovation during his time as Seoul mayor and a hard-line stand against North Korea.

We cannot know if the four-rivers project will be as equally well received as the Cheonggye Stream. And now Lee is showing signs of swaying in his North Korean policy under the influence of a temptation that affects South Korean presidents when their terms come to a close: a sit-down with North Korea’s leader.

One political leader cannot dream of changing the world. But a leader must have a sense of direction. If Obama was too eager to compromise and please everyone, Lee’s problem was a basic lack of philosophy. The worst kind of leader is one with a questionable identity because he does not have a basic philosophy. If we have learned anything from Lee, we must ask the next aspiring presidential candidates: “Do you know who you are?” And we need a reassuring answer before casting our votes.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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