The optics of presidential politics
When Howard Hughes was filming “Hell’s Angels,” he was puzzled why his airplane scenes, which looked dramatic enough while in the process of filming, looked sluggish and unimpressive when viewed on film. Finally, his eureka moment came and he exclaimed, “It is the clouds! There are no clouds in the sky!” Without clouds, the movement of planes across a clear blue sky on the screen seemed like no movement at all. So Hughes and his outfit had to find a location that had plenty of clouds.
As the presidential election of May 2022 hurtles toward us, everybody is now frantically trying to produce the clouds to portray their preferred candidates in a heroic, positive light. People who will evaluate presidential candidates only on the basis of films, photos, newspaper stories, and all sorts of media need contrast and context to show the comparative worth—real or imagined—of these candidates. Presidential politics is a battle of optics.
Public opinion polls are the default arena of optics. There are so many ways of manipulating these polls to reflect or condition the minds of voters. The mainstream and online media dutifully report these polls without much analytical filtration for truth. Creating the pecking order of popularity among candidates is intended to create an early bandwagon effect. The operative wisdom is that Filipinos will vote for predicted winners so as not to waste their vote. The results of these surveys are driven by motivation, not the science of polling. At the moment, we are made to believe that Sara Duterte would garner 26 percent of the vote if the elections were held today, Grace Poe and Bongbong Marcos would get 14 percent each, while Vice President Leni Robredo would only get 8 percent. Without any countervailing polls, the minds of voters are marinated in these early survey results.
Another arena of the optics battle is the manufacture of the desired images of political candidates via mainstream and social media. The Duterte camp had clear dominance in this arena in the 2016 presidential election and 2019 midterm elections. The only intervening factor might be the surge of youth voters and their invulnerability to fake information and images. This media battle turns on the raising of funds, organizing a social media army, and deploying it in unscrupulous ways.
Optics, of course, may reflect realities, and political candidates may project their true nature and capabilities. Given the layers of crises that grip the nation, presidential candidates will have to project an image of broad-spectrum decisional efficacy—capable of delivering essential public social services, capable of dealing with drugs and crime, capable of dealing with insurgencies and encroachments on national territory, capable of steering and priming the national economy, capable of inspiring people to achieve their individual, community, and national visions, etc.
The fragmented sharing of hypothetical votes in surveys may point to the lack of commanding versatility among the hypothetical presidential candidates. It is certainly too late in the day to acquire presidential-level versatility in the person of a candidate, but not to cobble together a political party coalition that organizationally reflects this versatility.
The situation of women candidates like VP Leni is particularly difficult. Yet, decisive women in politics like Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, and Aung San Suu Kyi are clear north stars. VP Leni is poised to take the challenge, but she needs to consolidate her core amorphous network of support, the Liberal Party, and other opposition groups. She needs to use decisional efficacy in problem-solving events as “clouds” to demonstrate her skills and mettle. She needs clouds in the form of reputable institutions and individuals; her presidential stock rises each time she gets briefed by the military on the national security situation, and when ambassadors make courtesy calls on her. She needs clouds in the form of sterling leaders in the public, private, and civil society sectors as endorsers and potential secretaries of executive departments.
The last battle arena of optics is personal optics. The Sara Duterte in the “Run, Sara Run” posters show carefully curated personal optics. No problem. VP Leni can ably contend in this arena as well. The presidential election of May 2022 is shaping up to be a battle of optics.
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