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The President’s 12-minute blah

/ 10:11 PM November 06, 2013

It’s an object lesson on how to squander political capital: President Aquino preempts prime-time TV programming to defend Budget Secretary Butch Abad’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)—and reaps rebuke.

“We are not stupid! We are angry, we are disgusted, and we will not allow this to pass.” That’s the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) reacting to Mr. Aquino’s pathetic attempt to spin the issues swirling around the DAP. Business process outsourcing is a $16-billion industry in the Philippines, with a workforce of one million young college graduates.

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Preempting prime time is a device used by US presidents to replenish political capital (as in Barack Obama announcing the death of Osama bin Laden) or spend it wisely (as in Ronald Reagan announcing tax cuts when the federal budget deficit was at an all-time high).

So, what did Mr. Aquino do wrong? Preempt prime time, to begin with, when he had nothing new to say about the DAP. He should have borrowed a different device from US presidents: lowering expectation, to make his pronouncement seem earthshaking.

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Early on the day of his prime-time address, the news websites were abuzz that Malacañang had asked the TV networks to preempt their early-evening shows for him. And then Secretary Sonny Coloma tossed a teaser, straight from Malcolm Gladwell’s playbook: Yes, the President would be discussing “current issues of national concern.” Pressed to say more, he said: possibly the DAP and PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund).

The TV networks plugged it all day long. And then Mr. Aquino spoke, same old, same old: The DAP is not pork; those who say it is are in cahoots with an old politician (“matandang pulitiko”) and company, who had allegedly plundered their pork barrel using Janet Napoles’ fake NGOs.

He did not name the old politician. American spinmeisters call it “dog whistle” messaging. “Matandang pulitiko” is supposed to be a code that only the public can decipher, not the old politician, just as dog whistles are heard only by dogs, not by humans. Except that “matandang pulitiko” is as subtle a signal as a trumpet blaring.

And that’s what got the BIEN’s goat, I think, and the Scrap Pork Networks’—being branded cohorts of the old politician just because their protests against pork don’t stop at the P10 billion allegedly plundered by the oldster and company. Their protests go all the way to Mr. Aquino’s P600-billion lump-sum and discretionary fund, and Abad’s P85.5-billion DAP.

Mr. Aquino has drawn the battle line pretty clearly: On one side are the people and the administration they voted into office, and on the other side are the officials involved in the pork barrel scam. Never mind that the people protesting against pork, including Mr. Aquino’s pork, are the very people who made him president, and gave him the “mandate for change.”

It’s like saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” How is that different from Ferdinand Marcos branding Mr. Aquino’s father, Ninoy, a communist just because he resisted martial law?

At the end of Mr. Aquino’s address, I thought: “That’s it? All that hype and an all-network simulcast to say something he said a week ago at the forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines? What was he thinking?”

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Three days later it became clear what he was thinking: that the public is a bunch of idiots! “It was a painstakingly detailed and conscientious speech to educate people on the process itself, so they will be well-informed,” Coloma said. As if that was not patronizing enough, he also said: “For those who may have missed this point while listening to his address, the President emphasized that [the DAP] is a process in which government can spend both savings and new and additional revenues that were sourced from government’s efforts to stop the connivance of some in bidding for contracts, in padding costs, overpricing, and kickbacks and from the proper spending of our budget.”

Does he realize he just gave Boboy Syjuco’s lawyers ammunition for their oral argument against the DAP in the Supreme Court on Nov. 11? The Solicitor General can contort the definition of “savings” all he wants, but where in the Constitution does it say that the President can spend “new and additional revenues” without congressional fiat?

Mr. Aquino has done that himself, actually. His televised address is a virtual ammo dump for DAP opponents to pick through. For example: “Of the DAP releases in 2011 and 2012, only 9 percent was disbursed for projects suggested by legislators.” Is even 1 percent legal? Did those legislators pick from projects already in the General Appropriations Acts of 2011 and 2012? And were the projects they picked, if already in the GAAs, in the same agencies where Abad had stopped projects on suspicion of graft?

For another example: “We looked for programs under implementing agencies that had proven themselves to be fast and efficient, and we channeled our savings into these programs—together with the additional revenue of the government.”

Coloma, in fairness, was just saying, “Amen.” And where’s Abad, by the way? Isn’t he the “puno’t dulo” of all this mess the President is now very deep in? His silence on the DAP has been sudden, and now deafening. Is he now gathering another Hyatt 10?

For that matter, where are all the President’s men and women? If they agree with his stand on the DAP, why don’t they stand by him in the firing line? Why is the President—and Coloma—all alone out there parrying the attacks of his enemies and the indignation of his hurting friends?

Romeo D. Bohol is a retired advertising copywriter.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, Commentary, dap, Disbursement Acceleration Program, opinion, Romeo D. Bohol, television
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