Friday, September 11, 2009

The New Cabinet Must Do the Right Thing at the Right Time

The New Cabinet Must Do the Right Thing at the Right Time
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
September 11, 2009

After more than 400 stormy days, Liu Chao-hsuan has gracefully stepped down as premier. As he departed, he said he "would not comment on the merits or demerits of his time in office." Obviously, at the moment of his departure, Liu Chao-hsuan had his own views bout his performance in office, and that it was at considerable variance with the views of others. A fair evaluation of the Liu Cabinet's performance probably requires that we judge Liu based on his own expectations. Indeed, "doing the right thing at the right time" is the key to modern leadership. A sense of timing is an art. Premier Liu may have done the right thing, but whether he did it at the right time is another question.

The public had high expectations of a cabinet comprised of professors and university presidents. But by the time Liu Chao-hsuan was forced to step down, the consensus was he "did not feel the people's pain." Just exactly where did the Liu cabinet go wrong? Had a once professional and capable Liu Chao-hsuan really lost his touch? American sociologist Samuel N. Eisenstadt made a detailed study of the power held by American presidents. He noted that the public arrives at its own evaluation of political leaders very early on. These leaders cannot avoid inevitable ups and downs in their approval ratings. Public expectations of politicians have changed. Therefore Ma Ying-jeou, who demonstrated commendable restraint in the use of presidential power, is now ridiculed as timid and overcautious. Liu Chao-hsuan, who was characterized as professional and capable, is now characterized as elitist and arrogant.

Changing times have generated this gap in perceptions. During May of last year, oil prices skyrocketed. The cost of living rose in response. The Liu cabinet had alreay committed itself to the president's energy conservation and carbon reduction programs. The energy industry, in response to long-term considerations, was undergoing transformation. But immediately upon taking office, Premier Liu was forced to increase oil prices. This provoked public discontent. Even pan-blue legislators refused to support the administration. The Liu cabinet's approval ratings immediately tumbled.

Was it right to increase oil prices? To be fair, in terms of industrial development and fairness, it was the right thing to do. But was the timing correct? That is a matter of opinion. The Liu cabinet was thinking of the economy as a whole. For the sake of long-term development, it was necessary to endure short-term pain. Therefore it was not concerned about short-term controversy. But the political environment is undergoing rapid change. For pundits who appear before the cameras on a daily basis, a week is considered long-term, and is enough to seal a politician's fate.

The Liu cabinet was lambasted for getting haircuts or celebrating Father's Day during a hurricane. But it would be fairer to evaluate the Liu cabinet's performance based on its six major industries and long-term development policies. These all deserve affirmation. The past is past. We are now in a different place. When evaluating the Liu cabinet and the prospects of the new cabinet, we must avoid falling into another trap. We must, as the old saying goes, avoid "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Why do we need such a reminder? The main reason is that the public likes the Wu cabinet mainly because it has mastered the art of timing, and has a better sense of proportion. For example, on his very first day, Premier Wu Den-yih floated the concept of the "street economy." He knew the Liu cabinet had been criticized as too theory-oriented, Therefore he immediately said, "Economic statistics are important, But the stock market, the restaurant business and the number of container trucks are indices more relevant to people's lives." The low-keyed Liu cabinet eschewed political theater. By contrast, as soon as Wu Den-yih took office, the first thing he did was to visit the disaster areas and spend the night with disaster victims.

The Wu cabinet has deliberately contrasted itself with its predecessor. So has much of the public. The public is looking at these two cabinets, before and after, in terms of their pros and cons. For example, it is contrasting the professional nature of the Liu cabinet with the political nature of the Wu cabinet. It is contrasting the bureaucratic style of Liu cabinet with the public relations style of the Wu cabinet. It is contrasting the professional attitude of the Liu cabinet with the election-savvy attitude of the Wu cabinet. Such appraisals may or may not be fair. The biggest problem is that when both the public and Kuomintang party and government officials make such black and white comparisions, this may inadvertently repudiate the virtues of the Liu cabinet. When everyone expects the new cabinet to consider public preferences, won't it wind up governing according to the polls? Won't it fail to take into account long-term national development?

We take comfort in the fact that President Ma Ying-jeou has not fallen entirely into such a "black or white" myth. He did not follow the herd. He did not fall back on a successful precedent. He did not appoint an elective leader as Minister of the Interior. Instead, he appointed Chiang Yi-hua, who hails from academia. Whether this will turn out to be a blessing or a curse is still unknown. But at least it shows that President Ma and the new cabinet have not fallen completely into the trap of an "election-savvy cabinet."

The Liu cabinet, which has just stepped down, tried to do the right thing. But it tripped over the issue of timing. The Wu cabinet is next. it has mastered the art of timing. But can it seize the opportunity to do the right thing? That will determine whether the new cabinet will be given a positive evaluation.

中時電子報 新聞
中國時報  2009.09.11










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