Approval Ratings

The Common Thread of US-ROK Approval Ratings

Posted on February 12, 2010. Filed under: Approval Ratings, Policy | Tags: , |

President Lee Myung-bak started his term with relatively high hopes. He won a plurality of the vote and along with his party, it appeared that the GNP had put the once-dominant Minju party in a position where it would take more than one cycle to make any major gains in Assembly. It seemed that the GNP was going to be able to smoothly implement most of their policies with minimal noise.

Two years later, President Barack Obama found himself in a very similar position. The American public had lost faith in the GOP and the Dems tapped into that disenchantment. Obama won a majority of the vote and the Dems captured both the House and Senate and after the wranglings between Franken and Colemen concluded, the Dems had the 60 votes it needed to implement anything it chose.

Both situations seemed to bode very well for each respective party and both leaders started with high approval numbers, yet within months of starting their terms their numbers started to drop. Why?

There runs a common thread between each drop. After losing power, the liberal establishment in Korea, the one which had ruled National Assembly since 2004 and had controlled of Cheong Wa dae since 1997 was scrambling. Across the pond in the US, the GOP had just lost control of the White House which they held for eight years and were still reeling over the 2006 loss of Congress of which they had held since 1994.  Both parties had lost control of the conversation and they both had to fight-off irrelevancy.

They both went deep and they both scored an eventual touchdown.

As we know, the Mad Cow protests were orchestrated by the bewildered liberal establishment. They pushed fabricated claims, false science and generated  endless amounts of nationalistic/anti-American propaganda.

And it worked. Millions took to the streets of Seoul to protest the policy. Of course, once the message became very convoluted and simple man-on-the-street interviews revealed that beef was not the real issue, the movement slowed, but the damage had already been done. The protest had turned into a place to vent frustrations not with the administration, but with government in general. As a result, Lee Myung-bak’s approval-rating fell to the levels of George W. Bush. Within three months, he went from 75% to a 17% approval rating.

The same can be witnessed with Obama. He came in on a high and the GOP was terrified. They tried to spit on the successful stimulus bill, but got some considerable push-back from moderates. That was not the winning formula. Finally in the summer of 2009, they found their boogie-man: Health-care reform. The conservative media went to work selling the angle and once they felt a breeze, they lifted the sails. And just like the beef protests, 95% of the information coming from the conservative noise machine was totally fabricated.

How does that expression go?

Republicans have no brain and Democrats have no spine.

I agree. The Dems lost total control of the conversation and allowed for the weakening of the reform bill. And as a result of the summer town-hall screamers’ total control of the news cycle, Obama saw his numbers drop from  60% in June to 50% today. It doesn’t look that bad considering what’s going on domestically, but in US politics momentum is everything and the momentum appears to be with the opposition for the time being.

Now, nearly two years after the beef protests, President Lee is hovering around 50% approval. And even though Obama seems to have made some gains by his recent thrashing of  GOP faux-talking points, it’s unclear what his numbers will look like in another year. Sure, the GOP will pick-up some seats in the fall which will allow for the Dems to paint the GOP as do-nothing (a good move), but can he recover his numbers like Lee Myung-bak did?

One would think identifying the subsequent policy compromises Pres. Lee made would offer some insight, but the truth is that Pres. Lee hasn’t actually pandered to the middle all that much. He hasn’t chimed in on that populist tone. He’s still pressing Sejong City and is going full-steam ahead on the now-renamed “4-Rivers Project” despite protests across the board. This is where Obama can learn from his Korean counterpart.

Pandering to the center loses elections. George W. was an awful President, but he was a good leader. He didn’t bend or fold and people liked that. He knew what he wanted and threw bipartisanship under the bus. And while the GOP seems to be hellbent on symbolically pushing the idea of bipartisanship, they haven’t displayed a single shred of it. The Bush-led GOP Congress didn’t let their lack of a filibuster-proof majority impede a thing. They went to reconciliation all the time and it’s time that Obama started doing the same.

To borrow a phrase, voter opinion is nothing more than “gusts of popular feeling”. Voters want to see tangible results. Lee Myung-bak knew that with Cheonggyecheon (Oh Se-hoon is trying the same). And while there might be obstacles along the way, pandering to the center never works. President Obama likes to commend the Korean education system an awful lot, but perhaps it’s time he takes a look at how a Korean politician pushes through legislation.

Hell, President Lee didn’t even cost his party votes at the mid-term.

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