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Ma himself the cause and the solution of PR troubles

In a meeting with senior Kuomintang lawmakers and incoming Cabinet officials on Sunday, President Ma Ying-jeou reportedly called on the Presidential Office, the Legislative Yuan and the Cabinet to work closer to better narrate the government's manifestos.

According to KMT caucus whip Lin Hung-chih (林鴻池), who was reportedly at the meeting, the president was concerned that the ruling party has not been able to properly make its cases on major issues such as Taiwan's use of nuclear power and pension reform, leaving society with only one voice — that of the opposition.

The president said individual public communication task forces should be formed to tackle specific policy issues with the goal of avoiding the dominance of opposition party arguments in the public arena. The government will establish a mechanism for lawmakers to communicate with the public concerning major policy issues.

It is not the first time the president has called for better communication skills as a Cabinet starts with a (relatively) clean slate. While he has identified the root of a long-term problem in Taiwanese politics — i.e. the lack of properly educated communication and debate of policies — he has yet to recognize that the key contribution to the communication deficit in Taiwan is not the officials' or lawmakers' lack of understanding of issues, but the lack of the president's voice.

A fresh start for the Cabinet may give the president false hope that “this time things will be different,” that new officials without baggage can somehow work better and avoid the media attacks that dragged on their predecessors. The truth of politics, however, is that no official that works on anything worthwhile will go uncriticized.

While the skill of communication is complicated, the best form of communication is often simple. The best channel for a government to communicate with the public is not an “established mechanism” but a person. Before the president sends out his officials and lawmakers on their charm offensives, he should first put himself on the front line and tell the people clearly the alternatives to the opposition's ideas.

A political rock star since his days as Taipei mayor, the president has long been squandering his greatest power as the communicator-in-chief. His restraint or reluctance to personally take issues to the public or to stump the street to push a policy may reflect his well-known respect for the law and his concern of acting outside over his office's prerogative. Meekness may be an admirable personal trait but it is not a desirable quality for a president, especially one who is complaining of the “one voice” dominance of the opposition.

The president may also think that it is proper, with his public approval ratings in their nadir, for him to stand aside and let his team do the communication. What he has yet to realize is that his absence in the public arena is a major reason behind his low ratings. The public in general still sees the president as an honorable person but one who has failed to relate and communicate with them.

The president should face the nation. His should let his vision of Taiwan be known not only through interviews with foreign media or yearly National Day speeches. The best “issue-specific communication task force” is a televised national speech in which the president speaks in the clearest terms his idea on the issue. The best “communication mechanism” is the one that involves the vocal cords.

With more than three years left in the president's term, the public deserves a president who accepts his low approval ratings as what they mean — that he is unpopular — and rises for the challenge.

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