Last week Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned for failing to keep key campaign promises after only being in office for nine months. About 90 percent of the American public have no idea who Hatoyama is, or that his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won control of Japanese politics after one party rule for decades, or that Japan is our most important strategic partner in Asia. However, we should all care, especially President Barack Obama, who could learn a thing or two from the former prime minister on how to keep your job in a rough political environment.
Hatoyama came to power last September on a campaign of change and celebrity. After ruling Japanese politics for decades, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which in American terms would be considered center right Republicans) had finally worn out their welcome for failing to dig the nation out of an almost decade-long recession. Hatoyama and the DPJ put together a fairly effective campaign, although the incompetence of the LDP helped. He picked up a lot of celebrity women and men to run under his party banner, promised to change things and swept into the Diet, Japan’s parliament, with a fairly respectable majority in both houses. And then it all went down – hill. Sound familiar yet?
Like Obama, Hatoyama came into office promising people big changes after they tired of the incompetence of the previous regime. And like Obama he failed to realize that when the people are ready for change they want bold decisions and action, not compromise and consensus. Ironically, it was Obama, who has been criticized for not being bold enough in his first two years in office, who was the key reason why Hatoyama looked weak and ineffective on one of his biggest campaign promises.
Hatoyoma’s biggest foreign policy promise during the Japanese campaign was that he would finally get America’s Futema Marine base off of Okinawa. About 75 percent of all American troops in Japan are on the small Island of Okinawa, and while financially the bases are a real boon to the local economy, sexual assaults and cultural conflicts between some residents and the soldiers have made the U.S. military a hot button issue for politicians in Japan. After portraying himself as a tough decision maker who’d put the base in its place, Haytoyama wilted like a lotus flower when he finally had a sit down with President Obama.
During their talks Obama made it clear America didn’t feel like moving the base, local political consequences be damned. Hatoyama accepted the compromise of moving the base to another location on the island, not nearly the change that Japanese voters could believe in. Faced with growing frustration in his own party, approval ratings at 17 percent and looming parliamentary elections in July, Hatoyama and some of his top aides resigned hoping that another leader would have a better chance of salvaging the party’s chances.
When one of your strongest political allies, who got into power after basically mimicking your campaign style, has to fall on his own sword after only nine months it’s a pretty good idea to pay attention. For Obama heading into the 2010 elections the message should be clear, people wanted and voted for change, not comprise, not negotiation and not consensus. When a society dedicated to consensus and compromise such as Japan gets tired of their leaders for failing to make bold decisions the American Democrats should not be surprised if they lose big this fall if they can’t demonstrate some policy and ideological backbone in the face of the Republicans. Furthermore, it’s not the number of promises that you break or keep, it’s how you go about breaking or keeping them that ultimately determines the level of public trust you gain or lose heading into the mid-terms.
President Obama has an adequate record in his second year compared to his promises: he passed a healthcare bill, reformed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the economy has not gotten WORSE. But just like with Hatoyamo, that’s not what people voted for. They wanted change, and bold decision making. And much of that – from the BP oil spill, to Wall Street reform to the Wars in the Middle East – either hasn’t happened or has been scrapped in favor of weak-willed compromise.
If Obama’s smart, he’ll shore up his boldness before the fall mid-term elections and avoid the fate of his former political colleague. Besides, it was his refusal to compromise on national security that cost Hatoyama his job anyway, stands to reason he should at least learn a lesson from it.