[Viewpoint] Is President Lee done with his job?“The residence under Mount Bukak slipped into the unfathomable abyss. I feared for the health of my husband who swallowed his rage against his sons. He kept silent, but withered quickly,” Lee Hee-ho, wife of the late President Kim Dae-jung, wrote in her memoir as she recalled the ordeal the presidential couple went through as they watched their two sons sent to prison in 2002 on bribery charges. In his autobiography, President Kim also confessed, “I tried not to show my feelings, but I felt as if the ground opened up. I felt myself plunging further and further down each day.”
President Lee Myung-bak may be feeling exactly the same way, considering his attachment to his elder brother Lee Sang-deuk, political mentor Choi See-joong and his closest aide Park Young-joon, who were all summoned to the prosecutors’ office on bribery and corruption charges. Even though they were not yet in hot water in February, the president at the time complained of heaviness in his chest and sleepless nights.
But the president has no one but himself to blame. He is looking at the same abyss as his predecessors on his way out - defeated and humiliated. He is going through the all-too-familiar political tradition of the lame-duck phase.
Freshly organized legislators are outright telling the presidential office to stay out of the way. Even the ruling Saenuri Party is advising them to quietly prepare to pack it up and hand over power. The legislature blatantly blocks policy execution.
But what the political circle is doing now is myopic and arrogant. Instead of pushing the president and his staff out the door, it must press them to do better and do more in the waning hours.
The president’s job is tougher and more demanding than we imagine. Past presidents went through the same order - confident and effective in the early stage and weak and impotent toward the end - due to the lame-duck spell. President Kim Young-sam battled with the financial crisis in his last year, while Kim Dae-jung agonized over teeming credit delinquents. President Lee is now confronted with snowballing household debt. Times are tough with the global economy faced with another crisis. It is no time to sit idle. The country paid a heavy price in 1997 when Kim Young-sam frittered away his final year while the country was suffering from the financial crisis.
A working legislature? What a laugh. It instead filibusters throughout election season. Many still wonder if the austerity measures prescribed by the International Monetary Fund in return for its bailout would have been that harsh if the National Assembly had passed the financial reform bill in November 1997. Kim Dae-jung took over a country in crisis and helped it recover, but at the same time he had been the presidential candidate of the main opposition that should be partly blamed for causing the crisis by blocking pivotal reform legislation. Kim Young-sam lamented that the only thing that matters to politicians during election season is votes. The incumbent president, having learned from his predecessors, has so far been holding his ground in order not to get mired in a popularity contest.
The economic ship is relatively in good hands. But on the foreign affairs and security front, the president must stand tall. It usually takes more than a year for a president to gain confidence in foreign and security affairs. When many governments around the world are in a transitional stage, many leaders are and would be inexperienced on the international stage. Important security and foreign issues should not be shelved. If the legislature cannot trust the government, it still must work together.
The next government also has a tight political schedule. In its second year, it has local elections. Former President Roh Moo-hyun complained that to get work done, a president needs good approval ratings, but he loses them if he does work. The new government could become self-conscious and cautious in carrying out necessary but unpopular policies. Government agencies also have a massive moving plan ahead. They could remain distracted until next year once relocation to Sejong City starts in December.
So is it wise to discourage the president from working? Who is the legislature helping in giving the president and his staff early vacation when they are required to do their paid work at least until Dec. 26 when the president-elect officially assumes office? The damage from a hiatus in governance is felt by the people. President Lee, who repeatedly pledged to maintain his office until his last day in his recent address to the Assembly, subtly left out the word “work” and said he will do his best even though his script contained the verb. Ironically, maybe the president finally decided to take advice from the legislature.
*The author is the deputy editor of political and international news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Ko Jung-ae