Lessons from Ronald Reagan
There is no end to these hopeless politics. Economic recovery and reform are empty slogans, and legislation and implementation are remote. The Blue House, the ruling and opposition parties are only advocating their plans. The welfare issue has become a theological debate, and methodologies, the status quo and expansion are merely aspects of the discussion.
The administration has not presented a Plan B or a Plan C. In a year with no election, it almost feels like one is approaching. The primitive contest between 100 percent and 0 percent is propelled by political engineering. I try not to be so negative, but I can’t help but feel that Korea is a third-rate country.
The country’s framework is crooked because of the deficit in leadership. President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating is below 30 percent. Constitutionally entrusted authority does not give the president power, and it is not easy to pressure the National Assembly. The president’s approval rating is such a critical variable in politics, proof that the National Assembly’s power has grown even though Korea does not have a parliamentary system in which the Assembly has the power to hold vote of non-confidence in the Cabinet. But the National Assembly’s leadership is also exhausted. Legislation - the original duty of the Assembly - has been pushed aside. And the National Assembly Advancement Act may even result in a permanent leadership deficit.
Moreover, we are living in an environment where reaching a social consensus is a challenge. Forty million people send their own messages, and public opinion remains divided. The dichotomy of good and evil, as well as trivial content, often establishes complicated reasoning. But ultimate accountability for the national administration lies with the head of state. In moments of crisis and chaos, the people look up to their leader. The president is the pivot of the country.
Domestic and foreign policies are just two sides of the same coin. When the public turns away from the president, she won’t be able to make foreign policy decisions. Other countries will be reluctant to make agreements with Korea.
So we need to reset our leadership.
We can learn from the example set by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In 1981, Reagan focused on new economic policies and stood in front of the people and the Congress five times. The U.S. economy was gloomy at the time, struggling with an $800 billion deficit, 12.4 percent inflation and 7 million unemployed Americans. Fifteen days after his inauguration, Reagan made four proposals in his televised address.
Tax cuts, a decrease in government spending, deregulation and a tightened money supply were at the heart of what became known as “Reaganomics.” It was the beginning a revolution - a turn away from a demand-driven economy and big government, and toward towards supply-side economics and smaller government.
Reagan was considered to have the weakest intellectual curiosity and attention to detail among America’s presidents, so he made comparisons anyone could understand. He persuaded citizens at eye-level, as a “Great Communicator.” In his five addresses, he explained his budget plan and the additional tax reduction.
The White House spent weeks preparing for his televised address and conducted opinion polls. Officials briefed the media and intentionally leaked some information. Congressional and state complaints were resolved, and an electoral network was mobilized.
Reagan’s approval rating wasn’t very high during his term. In January1983, it even fell to 35 percent in a Gallup poll, and his average approval rating during his eight-year presidency was 52.8 percent - lower than the average approval rating since President Harry S. Truman.
It was only much later that Regan was celebrated as one of the best presidents in U.S. history, and 1981 is remembered as an archetype of presidential leadership. He set priorities for the national administration, thoroughly understood public opinion, prepared for the environment and changed national policy.
Korea’s situation is unique, wherein it faces an economic slowdown, coupled with demands for welfare expansion.
Welfare is an unexplored possibility, a new challenge following industrialization and democratization. The deficiency in presidential leadership may be a structural problem due to public sentiment, which is influenced by economic hardship and uncertainty.
But we may still be able to find a solution. Koreans deserve to know what the present situation is really like and where the country is headed.
The president must take advantage of the timing. Presidential authority is based on persuasion, and persuasion is based on the art of negotiation. Her political stance should be bipartisan and based on mediation. Korea’s citizenry needs an optimistic leader to get them through these present challenges.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 12, Page 28
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Young-hwan