Tsai needs to give the office of the president a chance to be great again

The China Post

One of the most common errors shared by the leaders of democratic nations is misunderstanding their own power. After endless promises on the campaign trail to reform, enhance, enforce and protect, presidents and prime ministers, understandably, generally believe in hitting the ground running and pushing through as many policies as possible before the election cycle catches up with them again. They believe that the core of their power lies in the executive prerogatives that come with their office.

But as Donald Trump has probably realized by now, the actual power of even the most powerful office in the world is limited. Trump struggles to get anything done even with a Republican Congress and Senate. President Tsai Ing-wen is now facing the same problem. The NT$840 billion infrastructure plan proposed by her administration is supposed to be a signature stimulus package and a collection of gigantic gifts to local governments. Instead, it has become as controversial as the bitter political pill of pension reform: Even though Tsai’s ruling party has a supermajority against a weak and divided opposition party, the bill is still moving along at a snail’s pace.

The president’s greatest power to influence comes from the fact that a president is a symbol. It comes from the fact that he or she is the most recognizable politician, the holder of the biggest microphone in public discourse and the face of the nation. The attention a president commands as the communicator-in-chief is not less important than the troops he or she leads as the commander-in-chief.

The newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron understands this. After winning the election — basically for being “anyone but (right-wing politician Marine) Le Pen” — the 39-year-old political novice fashioned an image of himself as a confident leader and his presidency as a grand and powerful office. In May, the pro-Europe Macron famously squeezed Trump’s hand pale in a tense handshake battle in Brussels, headquarters of the EU. He summoned the joint session of Congress to give a speech fashioned after the U.S. president’s State of Union address at the Palace of Versailles. He released an official portrait heavily laden with symbolism, including a wartime memoir of Charles de Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic.

All these gestures of grandeur — which have made him the subject of ridicule and comparisons to Napoleon and Louis XIV— are deliberate. They are designed to restore the French public’s respect in a traditionally august presidency after the erosion of prestige seen by his two unpopular predecessors —“Bling-Bling” President Nicolas Sarkozy and “Mr. Normal” Francois Hollande. Macron understands that he needs the public’s support to tackle difficult issues ahead such as labor reform and to create an economic turnaround. By tapping into the symbolic power of his presidency, he is giving the French public a chance to be confident and proud again about their nation. That in turn will give him more leverage when the difficult task begins.