Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 8 News List

President Chen proves that he is a spin master

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

Elections are all about image. And when it comes to local politics, this "image-is-everything" notion is accelerating.

Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is well known for being a charming and easygoing leader. PFP Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) often reminds people of his hard-working image as a former governor of Taiwan Province. Among those political figures who try to attract media attention, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) happens to be the master of political spin.

In the face of a somewhat hostile media environment, Chen has been able to cover the media's lens with his own filters. Through unveiling inside stories and behind-the-scenes photos about his governance, Chen and his team successfully opened a door to the public and created an alternative way of public communication. The latest broadcast of A-bian Portrait (阿扁傳真) was the latest way to deliver Chen's message to the public.

Hoping to improve communication with the public and to cope with the opposition alliance's criticisms of the DPP government, Chen incorporated a similar mechanism to his counterpart across the Pacific Ocean US President George W. Bush with an aim to reach out to the public. During the authoritarian period, "the president" was an unassailable totem and instrument of power. But now, having gone through a democratic transfer of power, the presidency has gradually been given over to the common citizen, replacing its aura of mystery with new meanings of universality and transparency.

Chen's attempt to make the presidency a public arena not only displayed a great leap forward for Taiwan's democratization, but also encouraged a new kind of presidential leadership, namely, going public.

By going public, Chen realized he could show he cares for the day-to-day lives of the people as well as communicate his idea that government can be helpful to them. Going public can take many forms. The most conspicuous is the formal, often ceremonial occasion, such as an inaugural speech or press conference. It also involves casual activities such as going on a sight-seeing trip or making an appearance at an event -- all of which take place in public view and therefore can be easily remembered. Obviously Chen and his team continue to make weekly addresses free from media control and create an unbiased arena for the president to elaborate his ideas and policies.

One of the greatest challenges Chen faces is how to translate his campaign platform into feasible policy and accomplish his objective by substituting images for ideas. Judging by what Chen has completed, his utilization of the so-called "presidential card" has successfully captured the media focus and left the opposition no concrete alternative policy. Their only weapon has been ugly retorts.

Going public is not the only way for Chen to keep on the right track. He must also make use of his bargaining power to win support from the legislative branch, especially after the KMT-PFP cooperation.

In this regard, Chen must develop a mechanism to coordinate his own policy blueprints with the Cabinet and to persuade the congress to accept his policy. In this regard, the A-bian Portrait could also be served as a way to collect public support.

As the nation heads toward the next stage of democracy, the public will be more critical about politician's virtue as well as performance. Hence, the art of going public encompasses not just the old rules of embracing the people from the rank and file but most importantly, the essence of fulfilling the public's expectations. Chen will have only one year to show he means business.

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