‘She’ll find it very frustrating’As U.S President Harry Truman prepared to leave the Oval Office in 1953 after serving two terms, or eight years, he talked to a staffer about the man who would replace him, the highly popular World War II hero Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. “He’ll sit here and he’ll say ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
Kim Byong-joon, chief of policy planning for President Roh Moo-hyun, cited the quote by Truman in his book, “There is No President for 99 percent,” a memoir of the late president. Kim was agreeing with the thoughts of the American president. Despite what almost everybody believes, there’s not much a president can do while in office.
Is this true? Let’s take a look.
A president enjoys the largest amount of power and attention upon being elected. It is a moment of triumph for both the individual and the aides surrounding him. They confidently head to the presidential office as if fully ready to take up the nation and all its affairs - although the only things of use they can bring from their campaign headquarters are propaganda, old schedules and tired stump speeches.
It doesn’t take long for them to awake to the real world.
The president-elect is not given time to rest up after a hard campaign and enjoy the moment. Park Geun-hye will immediately have to start looking for people to make up her transition team and government. The list won’t drop from the sky and it’s a strong possibility that the president-elect will realize she’s coming up short despite all the aides around her. Three weeks after winning his election, President-elect John F. Kennedy found himself crying out in want of useful human talent.
The president-elect is also indebted to many people. That burden often leads to bad choices. Political headwinds blow at gale force way before the swearing in. Documents and papers demanding review pile up on the desk. The heavy workload again leads to bad decisions. Even if she’s brimming with confidence, the president-elect’s engines are not fully primed to get to cruising speed. The missteps of an administration start from this moment when the president-elect is still intoxicated with election victory.
A new government sets sail on a rapturous note. Both the media and legislature are responsive and engaging during the honeymoon period. There is no reason for it to be defensive since it has done nothing to answer for. And the president’s approval ratings are high.
But honeymoons last for a year at the longest. Although he was one of the great masters of passing U.S. legislation, Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy, would later advise his successors to do everything possible in the first year because that was the only time the legislature would listen and be cooperative.
Later, scandals pop up and diplomatic headaches come on. While the president is engrossed in work, there are those who feel neglected and hurt. As the term rolls on, the list of the resentful grows. Those who were once quiet start raising their voices. The approval rating slowly sinks.
By the end of the first year in office, the president will come to the awareness that unexpected things always happen and nothing goes as planned. The president will realize that she will be spending most of her time and energy fighting battles she can do little about and picking up other people’s messes.
The president will become more and more introverted and try to avoid reading the newspapers, which are usually unfriendly toward the president and the government. The president turns media-shy and picky about news organizations she will talk to. The clock ticks and the president becomes anxious and frustrated about having done so little. The president decides to take things into her own hands, enlarging the presidential office to fill it with more advisers and aides.
In his book “Organizing the Presidency,” in which he examined White House staffs from President Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, Steven Hess, a senior fellow emeritus in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution, concluded that no U.S. presidents succeeded in running governments the way he sincerely wanted.
Presidents in other countries are no different. President Lee Myung-bak walked a similar path. His successor and those coming after her face the same road with occasional turning points toward successes, failures, draws and disappointments.
President Truman, who complained “nothing happens” in the Oval Office, happens to be one of the most respected American presidents. Although a president can be unappreciated during his or her term or even lifetime, history’s judgement sometimes turns around. We sincerely wish our new president good luck from the very start.
* The author is deputy editor of political news at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae