According to a national poll, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is currently enjoying a 72% approval rating after forcing six out of 39 ministers to resign in a span of only six months. President Barack Obama, by contrast, has hit a record low for any modern American president at this same juncture in his presidency, at just 43%.
Both of these numbers are in line with this year’s global trend of a broad public desire for major change, represented most emphatically by the ousting of several dictators across the Middle East. In a similar, though less extreme, way, Rousseff’s no-nonsense policy towards corrupt politicians has been a major shift from Brazilian politics in the past. In the United States, with the first state primary soon to be underway, America’s presidential candidates should take a note from the direct style and tough decision-making exemplified by Brazil’s first female president, and the world’s third most powerful woman. These traits promote a policy of action over rhetoric, something the U.S. candidates need to learn from, and fast.
Brazilian Labor Minister Carlos Lupi is the most recent official to resign, leaving office in early December. The mass exits began in June, however, with the resignation of President Rousseff’s chief of staff, Antonio Palocci. That was followed by the resignations of the ministers of agriculture, transportation, tourism, defense, and sports (the country is set to hold the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics), along with several high and mid-ranking ministry officials that were fired or arrested by federal police on corruption charges. Many of these allegations can be traced back to the previous administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva.
Corrupt politicians are nothing new in Brazil, where the first elected president of the country’s post-military democracy, Fernando Collor de Mello, was impeached in 1992 on accusations of corruption. Though in her campaign Rousseff represented her presidency as a continuation of former president Silva’s government, her actions tell a different story. Dubbed the Iron Lady and often described as uncharismatic, Rousseff has been the first to embark on a policy of intolerance for corruption.
When she began her first term as president in early 2011, Rousseff had never run for elected office before and was considered to be lacking the political and negotiating skills necessary to work successfully with Brazil’s Congress, comprised of a coalition of 10 parties. Yet, her inexperience and distinction from presidents who have traditionally been less reserved seem not to have hindered her.
Not only has she begun the process of ridding corruption from Brazil’s government, she has also begun to cross party lines to ease tensions with members of rival parties, such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In this way, Rousseff has been able to win support even from voters outside her own coalition. She was also successful in pushing a controversial environmental law, known as the forest code, through Congress. And perhaps most impressive, she has maintained a remarkable approval rating even with a three percent drop in economic growth.
President Obama, on the other hand, ran his “hope” campaign on the platform of change, while his approval rating implies an unsatisfied public. He is a skilled orator and his use of rhetoric is more similar to Lula, who spent years as a trade union negotiator, than to the brusque and direct style of Rousseff. Some of the GOP candidates, such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), have been using the language of strong change, but without good policy to back it up. For one of the parties to produce a candidate that the public can really get behind, a person more like Rousseff might do well.
President Rousseff’s success is a direct consequence of her straightforward governance and willingness to make difficult and sometimes controversial decisions. Ousting ministers did not come without consequences – some earned their titles as a result of deal making with other parties or as a legacy of Lula – and it took courage to potentially jeopardize her relations within the coalition in order to combat the accepted tradition of corruption in Brazilian politics. Rousseff represents the triumph of action over rhetoric and proves that it is what the public wants. We would be fortunate for the next U.S. president to rise to such status. But with the candidates currently on the shelf, it seems safer to say better luck next time.
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