The View from Taichung: Lessons from Obama for Tsai

Lessons from the Obama Administration for President Tsai

Workers clean fish at Donggang Port (Photo by Michael Turton)

At present President Obama of the United States is leaving office on a wave of popularity. Though Obama nostalgia has already begun, thoughtful historians, looking back on Obama, will be chiefly struck by the extent of his failures. On almost any issue of note, Obama failed to take progressive, people-centered action, especially about problems in the heartland where the Democratic Party was crushed. Endemic problems in red and swing states such as drug abuse, suicide, environmental pollution, unemployment, stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread poverty were largely ignored. The Wall Street bankers who crashed the global economy went unprosecuted. No meaningful action was taken on the climate. Key symbolic issues such as the Flint water crisis or the Dakota Pipeline received only soothing words. Tellingly, the only moderately progressive major legislation of his tenure, the Affordable Care Act, began life as a Republican plan, and was widely panned by critics as a subsidy program for insurance companies.

The results of this cascade of inaction are obvious: electoral failure. Voters, especially in the heartland, looked at Clinton and decided they did not want four more years of the status quo, because the status quo was quietly killing them. Moreover, despite his personal popularity and organizational skills, Obama failed to secure Congress for the Democrats. Though Clinton took the blame for the election debacle, the seeds of defeat were planted by Obama.  

These failures are warnings for the Tsai Administration and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP): at some point, on major public issues, it needs to take a very public progressive stance, because voters are watching.

Numerous urgent issues could use loud public action from the Tsai Administration. In the last decade the number of people aged 30-40 earning less than NT$30,000 a month has risen, according to a recent study from the Taiwan Institute for Economic Research (TIER). Taiwan is filled with quietly desperate people of prime earning age making less than they should, and more importantly from a political standpoint, less than they feel they should. They will probably never own a house, and are having fewer children and commuting farther to work as they move out of expensive metro areas. This population has been quiescent, because it is often living at home, its living standards buffered by the savings of parents during the miracle years. But it could well set its face against the Tsai Administration if its needs are not addressed.  

Case in point: the recent labor disputes. Disappointing pre-election expectations, the Tsai Administration wants to slash public holidays and refuses to pass legislation giving two genuine fixed days off a week for workers. The recent clashes between labor representatives and the government have been the result, and many members of the student movement that sent the Sunflowers into the legislature and the KMT to electoral ruin are supporting labor in these goals, as Brian Hioe of New Bloom observed in a recent piece on the issue. “Tsai does not stand to alienate one constituency through refusing to back down on labor policy,” Hioe warns, “but stands to offend a large swath of the Taiwanese public.”

Indeed: a huge chunk of that working public is now rushing into the center: the rapidly growing metro area of the battleground municipality of Taichung. At its current pace it will be Taiwan’s second largest municipality when the local elections come round in 2018, trailing only New Taipei City. Taichung is an industrial powerhouse, a world center of machinery and sporting goods production. Come 2018 these workers will be voting, and they will, like American voters in the heartland, note the disappointments from the top, and remember also that the DPP has a history of using and then discarding the labor movement. Although current DPP mayor Lin Chia-lung was elected in a landslide, the previous mayor, though popular, won re-election the third time by a razor thin margin. Taiwanese voters are big-hearted and like to give politicians a second chance, but the heartland is impatient, and it wants concrete results. It will sound a warning come election time, a warning that could well cost the DPP in the center.

Last week a neighbor comes over to give my wife some greens, and remarks on how bad the new train stations in Taichung are. After complaining about the Tanzih and Fengyuan stations, she turns to Taichung station: “It’s all Lin Chia-lung’s fault. He had the stations redesigned.” Although the claim is absurd, the underlying perception is not: Taiwanese voters tend to assign responsibility for events to whoever is in charge. If the DPP is not perceived to be working for the people, then discontented workers across the nation may well switch parties come 2018, or refuse to vote. In the battleground areas of central Taiwan where identity politics have less sway, worker votes will be crucial in maintaining DPP power.

The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) lacks any charismatic, competent figure popular across demographic blocs, nor is any likely to appear in time for the 2020 election. The current expectation is that Tsai will be re-elected. However, come 2024, the DPP will have to select a new candidate and party leader. Will Tsai handicap that new leader with the cynical judgment that the DPP has become a tool of big business? A little progressive prevention will go a long way in curing such perceptions.