What has nine months in office done to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)? Has she changed? This question was recently put to the Presidential Office spokesman. His reply was interesting, albeit hardly insightful: He said it seems that Tsai has gotten more gray hair.
Discussion about the relation between the presidency and gray hair is not new.
At the beginning of former US president Barack Obama’s time in office, his hair did attract the attention of the mainstream US media. During his second term, Obama himself even predicted that by the end of four years, his hair would look like actor Morgan Freeman’s.
In 2009, with his promise of change, the 48-year-old Obama fought his way into the White House and it was not long before journalists began to notice that his hair had started turning gray.
It was not surprising that after being in office for nearly a year, he started to occasionally explain to the US public that change is difficult and does not happen overnight.
All these reveal that, in the actualization of ideals, all these issues “beyond expectation” that appear in the process often confuse novices.
With the US acting as a global leader, its president is often called upon to take the lead in global affairs. Obama’s ambition was not only to change the system at home, such as with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, but also to change US foreign policy, for example bringing an end to the war in Iraq.
It is a huge game, and is understandable if it turns out to be difficult and does not go well.
How does this compare with Taiwan and its relatively modest population of 23 million?
So long as the health insurance system does not fall apart, anyone — rich or poor — has access to healthcare, so there are unlikely to be scenes of people perishing in the streets.
Beyond this, other affairs are relatively less complicated, so being the president of Taiwan is much easier. If the president is a good leader and knows how to govern, the issue of gray hair need not become a topic of discussion.
Leadership is knowing where to lead everyone and setting an example by one’s own actions; to govern is to make everyone obey the rules and to move toward a common goal. Both are prerequisites for a president.
Presidents in Taiwan have usually served as the chair of the ruling party; under the unity of party and government, the buck really does stop with the president.
Being a leader requires bringing together divergent opinions and successfully concluding deals. In other words: having the final say, end of discussion.
It is clear that this requires a decisionmaker, not a negotiator. Coordinating diverse views and mitigating differences is more the party chairperson’s role.
This would not work within the executive, just as the head of state cannot attend to all matters in person, as this would introduce confusion in the hierarchy.
In these cases, the head of state needs to know how to delegate. This is especially true in domestic affairs, where others share the burden, but also the credit.
This principle already exists within governmental structures: the secretary-general reports to the president, while the Executive Yuan secretary-general reports to the premier.
The official duties of the Presidential Office secretary-general are listed in the ROC Office of the President Organization Act (中華民國總統府組織法): to carry out the orders of the president and to take overall charge of Presidential Office affairs, as well as directing and supervising the staff.
Even though there does not seem to be anything unusual about these, in practice, it depends on whether the president knows how to make proper use of these guidelines.
In the event that a position does not function properly, there are other positions to take up the slack, and — if the president makes good use of these — he or she can authorize people in these positions to coordinate with the Executive Yuan and with all sectors of society to ensure that disputes are settled.
The president is like a chef, furnished with all the necessary ingredients, who must weave them together to make a presentable dish.
If they achieve this, how can they not be popular?
A recent case illustrates this point: In determining whether marriage equality should be dealt with via amendments to the Civil Code (民法) or by drafting a separate law, the Presidential Office arranged for Tsai to go to the front lines and have a face-to-face dialogue with opposing camps.
The office subsequently published a report on the meetings, followed a few days later with reports on meetings with pro-marriage equality groups in the interests of parity and completion.
According to Presidential Office accounts, staff were working on this into the night, and Tsai herself made phone calls to ensure that the published conversations would not offend or embarrass anyone.
Several alarm bells are ringing here. Where was the strategic planning or advance preparatory work, compiling points of discussion and producing an initial consensus before the president went to the front lines?
Instead, it seems Tsai was put in the line of fire, and was asked to do the job of her subordinates.
When the two opposing camps vented their frustrations, more pressure was placed on the president, again demonstrating a lack of preparation.
If these failures could have been made in such a relatively straightforward issue, what can we expect with more complex ones? It really is no wonder Tsai’s hair has turned gray in less than a year.
We must agree that the president, who we carefully elected, should not be subject to this kind of abuse.
The public authorized the president to form a governing team. They have to get more organized.
The opposition can be a ragtag bag of agitators, but the government cannot.
The international environment today offers Taiwan all kinds of opportunities. This is a fleeting historical moment that we must seize.
We look to Tsai to make good use of the country’s talent and resources, and to lead us forward.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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