A presidential mandate stems from two elements: the constituents and the president’s agenda. Without electoral support, a president can still attain greatness by pursuing policies that are in the nation’s interest. Great presidents are leaders who take aggressive action in the face of crisis without full-fledged consultations from the people. When decisive action is required, they take it without hesitation. More important, when facing heavy criticism from opponents, great presidents take actions that become hallmarks of their terms.
In US President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech on Monday, he highlighted two controversial issues: gay rights and climate change. These are issues that have divided public opinion and consensus. However, he raised these topics for public discussion to facilitate understanding of each position.
In a divided US Congress, Obama has sought its support by acknowledging the strategic partnership role it plays on a wide facet of issues. He astutely stated that a divided government provides a great opportunity to achieve a common goal. Appreciating his limits and fostering a coherent government within a bipartisan Congress, Obama’s gesture will garner political leverages to advance his agenda.
Ironically, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), with the luxury of a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-dominated Legislative Yuan, has been humbled by his political rivals.
US political scientist Fred Greenstein once stated: “Unless a president sets his own priorities, his priorities will be set by others — by adversaries.”
Since Ma won his re-election bid last year, he has failed to pinpoint any agenda he subscribes to. Even if there is such an agenda, he has not make it clear to the public what he believes in.
Former US president George W. Bush was effective in shaping public opinion. Bush’s addresses to the public after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks were regular, and each address was forceful. The media broadcasted the felling of a statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s and scenes of Bush holding up a plate of roasted turkey during a secret visit to Iraq during Thanksgiving. These moves aimed to legitimize US operations in Iraq. Although no weapons of mass destruction were found, Bush’s unvarying rhetoric of a world without a dictator and the prospect of democracy in Iraq built support for his policy.
Regrettably, Ma’s humble approval rating of 13 percent is not without reason. It appears that the KMT is merely concerned with whether Ma can run for KMT chairmanship. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently rejected a deflationary policy by advocating a risky move of printing more yen, Ma remains baffled by the domestic issue concerning retirement packages for workers and civil servants. Moreover, the unresolved transportation policy over a highway on the eastern border from Hualien to Taipei awaits Ma’s decision.
Not surprisingly, Ma’s presidential mandate has eroded since his second inauguration. He has neither sought out his constituents nor has he been firm and decisive in pursuing any major policies that would mark his term.