Approval is everything

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Approval is everything

I couldn’t understand it at the time. I had been talking with a presidential secretary in September 2009, nineteen months after President Lee Myung-bak took office. The secretary asked me if I saw the picture of President Lee amongst merchants at the Namdaemun market in the papers. He said he studied every one of the hundreds of faces in the picture and none of them had a look of disfavor. To his eye, that was a sharp contrast to the massive candlelight vigil protesting the conservative government’s decision to resume U.S. beef import in the previous year. Upon seeing the difference, the official said, tears welled in his eyes.

He was speaking of a “surprising” change in attitude about 10 days after the president’s visit to the traditional market. Yet he was not merely surprised. He was emotional about the change in favor of the president. His confession underscored the distress the presidential office underwent at the time of the nationwide protests in the first year of the president’s term. He then suddenly blurted out how important the approval rating of a president is.

The official explained that the Lee administration could regain confidence to some extent at the time thanks to its debt-to-income regulation to rein in rampant real estate speculation and its success in persuading companies to spend billions of dollars on micro-financing to aid small merchants and businesses. Legislative resistance to the government’s proposal to cut corporate taxes also eased partly thanks to the improved popularity of the president and his government. President Lee’s ratings bounced back to nearly 54 percent from the alarming 10 percent of the previous year.

I thought the official was exaggerating or being too emotional about the increase in support for his boss. In fact, the president’s approval rating is bound to go down as his term runs toward its end. Popularity inevitably sinks. Political pundits even say that the president’s job approval rating moves on a “bank account model” because you watch the ratings slip out of the account as the days pass. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to fret over the pace of the fall. Destiny requires the number to decline, not to go up. The president should maintain an attitude like this: “I will do my work without paying any attention to my approval ratings.”

Three years later, I understood the significance of approval ratings for the president. An official in charge of gauging public opinion at the Blue House said, “Pushing ahead with reforms means that someone will get hurt in the process as it translates into an attack against the vested interests of the establishment. The only means of pressuring them under the circumstances are the president’s approval ratings. If they are low, the president cannot pursue the reforms he promised, not to mention run the government.” A former Blue House official chimed in saying, “With high approval ratings, it’s simple for a president to do his job and do what he wishes.” Simply put, the support of the people is the driving force of governance.

President Park Geun-hye is said to have achieved a job approval rating of over 40 percent in her first month in office. That’s an unusually low figure for a president in a honeymoon period. The president of polling company Realmeter, Lee Taek-soo, called it a “critical situation.” But a presidential aide shrugged it off. “During elections, thousands of votes are at stake on a change of approval rating of 1 or 2 percent. It’s different now. It’s better to start off with low expectations, as there will be less of a chance of disappointment down the road.”

In fact, the decline of the president’s approval ratings began with an internal division within the ruling party. But the Saenuri Party is untouched by the falling popularity of the president. It’s engrossed in its factional struggle over who is more loyal to the president. “Those who expected appointments for high government posts are disappointed and those who did not are worried. But they cannot openly complain in fear of annoying the president. So they keep mum,” one party member said. But the party will have to be on high alert if the approval ratings of their boss remains flat or drops. A pro-Park lawmaker from the ruling party who spoke frankly about the president even drew applause.

The former president’s emotional aide said that he wrote an internal report that President Lee would not only need to be responsible, but also responsive in order to help the ruling party win another victory in the next presidential election. The same advice goes to the new president. Falling approval ratings should tell her she should fix her incommunicative, unilateral and stubborn style which has been criticized over and over. How she responds will shape her future in the Blue House.

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

by Ko Jung-ae
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