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Six months after an uncertain start, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is enjoying a period of stability, or so it seems. In contrast, immediately after the Liberal Democratic Party’s defeat in June’s Lower House election, the governing party was gripped by a feeling that it would not be able to win next year’s Upper House election as long as Mr. Mori was at the helm.

According to an opinion poll conducted nationwide by Kyodo News Service Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 33.4 percent supported the Mori Cabinet, up one percentage point from the last poll in July. Many LDP members who were disappointed with Mr. Mori six months ago are now relieved that the slide in his approval rating has finally stopped.

Seen from a different angle, however, the survey results show that the pattern of disapproval remains basically unchanged, with as many as 58.2 percent still saying no to the Mori administration. The biggest reason given for approval is that there is “no other appropriate person.” Only 5 percent or less support his policies.

The perception of stability seems temporary and, therefore, could reverse at any time. This is because the uptick in the approval rating seems to have nothing to do with the Mori administration’s performance. More important, the prime minister does not seem willing to change things on his own initiative.

What is more, according to reports he is spending much of his precious time talking with supporters in Ishikawa Prefecture, his constituency, and attending parties almost every night. These activities, though they may seem trivial, tell a great deal about “Yoshiro Mori the politician.” Ever since he became a Lower House member in 1969 Mr. Mori has spent a lot of time and energy promoting “dialogue” with local voters and cultivating friendships at evening parties.

Other prime ministers have been criticized for paying too much attention to local constituents and to building friendships with others, but their conduct was more restrained. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa has defended the prime minister, saying, “He wants to remain a populist politician.” Those words ring hollow. One must wonder whether the prime minister is putting more important priorities on the back burner.

A case in point may be what he did after the meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in late September in the resort city of Atami. He attended the summit despite a severe cold and dozed off during the press conference because, it was explained, he had taken cold medicine. But immediately after returning to Tokyo, he went to meet his supporters from Ishikawa at a Chinese restaurant. That seemed tactless, coming on the heels of a major diplomatic event.

This and other seemingly trivial deeds may have resulted in the public criticism that Mr. Mori may not be fit to serve as prime minister. The bottom line is that he still does not have the public trust he needs to pursue his avowed policy goals. For instance, he is drumming up support for “an information-technology revolution” in Japan, but he seems to be just parroting a line he borrowed. He says he wants to build an IT-driven economy, but his appeal for an IT revolution is not yet a national goal because the majority of people do not take him seriously.

The same goes for his diplomacy. Since taking office, he has made four overseas trips that took him to 13 nations. The highlight of his diplomacy was the G8 summit in Okinawa, which he chaired. But in Okinawa and elsewhere he wasted the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership. His presence served, if anything, to reveal the absence of a diplomatic strategy.

In fairness, however, it must be remembered that Mr. Mori took office by chance following the death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. So he formed his Cabinet with little or no preparation, vowing to pick up where Mr. Obuchi had left off. But he has been in office long enough to assert himself. The fact that he was thrust into power by accident can no longer be used as an excuse for lack of leadership.

Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, the outspoken chairman of the LDP’s Mori faction, reportedly has advised the prime minister to think for himself and speak in his own words. The advice should be taken seriously. There may be nothing wrong with meeting local petitioners or attending evening parties. But, first and foremost, Mr. Mori should tell the nation in his own words what he, as prime minister, believes and what kind of nation he wants to build.

In other words, the first thing he should do in this milestone period in office is return to the basics. Unless and until he does so, he probably will not be able to escape the public perception that his administration is, after all, a caretaker government, no matter how long he actually stays in power.

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