Learning from Barack Obama
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In 2008, the United States was on the brink of another great depression. Due to the subprime mortgage crisis and global financial crisis, the U.S. economy was in a free fall. On Nov. 5, 2008, when Senator Barack Obama was elected the 44th president, media said he was given the “worst job.”
Exactly one month later, 12 former and incumbent presidential chiefs of staff attended a meeting in the White House hosted by then Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, the top aide for the outgoing President George W. Bush. Bolten, who would leave his office in six weeks, hosted the bipartisan meeting for his successor, Rahm Emanuel.
“Obama had spent the better part of his campaign trashing us from one end of the country to the other. But he’s our president,” said Vice President Dick Cheney, who had served as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff at age 34.
“Always, always, be straight and honest with the president of the United States,” said Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. “Always tell him what he may not want to hear — because frankly, a lot of people in the White House will always tell the president what he wants to hear.”
After their talks, the group went to the Oval Office, met with President George W. Bush. The United States was a country that unites before a crisis.
The economic crisis the Yoon Suk-yeol administration faces is as serious as in the U.S. 14 years ago. The Korean economy is suffering from high prices, high interest rates and the strong dollar. Concerns grow about stagflation. At the end of August, the trade deficit for the year totaled $24.7 billion.
The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) dealt a blow to Hyundai Motor Group, which exports electric cars to America. The United States is also reviewing a plan to restrict foreign companies that produce semiconductors in China from exporting cutting-edge chip-making equipment to China. The plan will seriously affect Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, which have been producing a large share of their semiconductors in China. Ahead of the mid-term election in November, the United States is on a desperate crusade to save itself no matter what happens to other countries. The Korean economy is on the edge of a crisis.
And yet, the former and current administrations are waging an all-out war against the other. On the first day of the regular National Assembly session on Sept. 1, the prosecution ordered Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Jae-myung to attend a questioning over his alleged election law violation. The majority party has threatened to initiate a National Assembly investigation and an independent counsel probe into corruption allegations surrounding President Yoon’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, and her family.
As the police and the prosecution are investigating over 10 corruption allegations, Lee, the former presidential candidate for the DP, became a lawmaker and party chairman followed by the DP’s revision of its party constitution to defend Lee. The DP is going too far. The probe into first lady Kim should be done strictly and separately from the investigation of Lee.
If Lee — a defeated presidential candidate — is convicted of an election law violation and receives a punishment heavier than a fine of 1 million won ($728), the DP must return the 43.4 billion won in election subsidy the party received from the government. That is why the party is using every possible means to resist the investigation into its leader. The two parties have waged war against one another.
In the meantime, the internal power struggle of Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP) is growing more than ever. After the party said it will elect a new interim leader on Thursday, former Chairman Lee Jun-seok said he will file yet another injunction against the decision as soon as a new leadership is established.
Under such circumstances, everything can collapse. On Sept. 1, the National Assembly started its first regular session since President Yoon took office in May. To deal with unprecedented economic and security challenges in a bipartisan way, the two parties must stop their war. As Panetta advised Emanuel, Yoon’s aides must have the courage to tell the president what he may not want to hear. Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Dae-ki — who has no political interests — is the best person to do so. He must straightly tell Yoon to avoid any words and behavior that may cause a conflict and issue a message of unity and reform.
Immediately after Obama took office, the European Union was implementing belt-tightening policies, but he managed to pass an urgent stimulus package totaling $787 billion, the largest in the U.S. history. As GM, the symbol of American capitalism, was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the U.S. government nationalized the company by buying 60 percent of its stock. Obama made bold moves, and Congress supported him, which helped the U.S. escape from the Wall Street-triggered financial meltdown ahead of Europe.
If the two parties in Korea confront each other over all issues, the president cannot work. For Yoon to overcome the economic crisis like Obama, he must restore his status as a leader who can transcend political battles.
Emanuel said the president is not a position to choose between “good or bad,” but a position to choose between “bad or worse.” That signifies the importance of a realistic choice to avoid the worst. As the Avatamsaka-sutra says, the same water becomes milk when drunken by cow, but it becomes poison when drunken by a snake. The current crisis can be a blessing if Yoon puts himself down for the sake of the people as the country’s leader and deals with the crisis.
Humans are incomplete in every way. We only see a world we want to see. President Yoon must humbly accept advice and criticisms from the people. That is the way to meet public sentiment and become a successful president.