Leadership missteps

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Leadership missteps

Three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, rescue workers were busy removing the debris of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center searching for the remains of victims. Firefighters, policemen and volunteers using heavy equipment had a surprise guest - then President George W. Bush. Dressed in a beige jumpsuit, Bush stood alongside a firefighter covered with dust and held a bullhorn.

“I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people - and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

The American people, who were aghast at the attack that killed 3,000 people in broad daylight at the economic heart of New York City, reacted to Bush’s speech that was aired live. The sight of the rubble and a firefighter covered with sweat and dust and the president standing with a bullhorn seemed like a scene from a movie, and emotions were amplified.

In fact, Bush had struggled with low approval ratings before the Sept. 11 attacks, because of a loophole in the U.S. presidential election system, although his rival Al Gore had won 540,000 votes more in the 2000 race. During his first year in the White House, Bush heard voices saying his election was invalid.

But he turned around the situation with his Ground Zero speech that day. He kindled a patriotic fire in the fear-stricken hearts of Americans. Thanks to the “War on Terror,” Bush was reelected in 2004. Whether the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were right or not is a separate issue. But Bush’s speech has become a classic example of how a politician can change people’s sentiments. In a moment of fear and grief, people with heavy hearts were easily moved.

When compared to Bush, President Park Geun-hye started her term in a very favorable situation. In the 2012 election, Park was elected by 51.6 percent of the vote, the first president to win a majority since the Constitution was revised in 1987. But she wasted her first year with a series of botched appointments and the sexual harassment scandal of her spokesman Yoon Chang-jung.

Her plunging approval ratings sapped the energy for reform. And then there was the tragic Sewol ferry sinking. The people expected to see Park encourage the country “to use all its power to save the students.” But her whereabouts for the crucial seven hours after the incident were unknown.

On day after the sinking, Park went to the gymnasium at Paengmok Harbor on Jindo Island and went up to the stage. Presidential security guards surrounded her in layers. Because then-Prime Minister Chung Hong-won got doused with water from enraged families of passengers, the Presidential Security Service probably felt sensitive. But the president on the stage, holding a high-tech microphone, was not Bush at Ground Zero. If she had gone down from the stage and hugged the families and if she had deplored the government’s slow response and showed sincerity by taking control of the rescue operation from there, and if she had changed public sentiment, there would have been no need for her to start the campaign to root out corruption at the beginning of this year and struggle with the Sung Wan-jong list.

The president had missed her first chance, but she faced another opportunity on May 20. That was the day when the first confirmed case of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was reported. But the president was late once again.

Even after a third-generation transmission was confirmed on June 2, she still visited the Creative Economy Center in Yeoju, South Jeolla. In the meantime, four government agencies, presumably all in charge of the outbreak, had lost their way. The quarantine failed and the president finally dressed in a yellow jumper and visited the National Medical Center 16 days after the first patient was confirmed. It was way too late to influence public sentiment.

As pressures mounted for the president to apologize for her failed countermeasures to control the MERS outbreak, she decided to strike back at both the ruling and opposition parties. She vetoed the revision to the National Assembly Act and declared that the “politics of betrayal” must be judged in next year’s general elections and the 2017 presidential election.

But the confrontation between the Blue House and the National Assembly instantly paralyzed legislative activities. The fate of the urgent measure to create a supplementary budget has become unclear. What will happen to the already listing economy of the country amid the high waves of the Sewol’s sinking, the MERS outbreak and drought when lurking ahead is a typhoon caused by an interest rate increase from the U.S. Federal Reserve? Was there ever an administration that won an election after destroying the economy?

JoongAng Ilbo, June 29, Page 30

*The author is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Jung Kyung-min

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