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Effective

/ 12:42 AM July 30, 2014

President Aquino’s fifth State of the Nation Address took an unexpected turn, and was the better for it.

Perhaps two responses, from members of the political opposition, best illustrate the favorable reception. Sen. JV Ejercito sent out a much-shared tweet: “Even if I am in the opposition, I think this Sona is the best by P-Noy. Concise and simple. He became emotional in the end. Pati ako nadala (Even I was moved).” The opposition’s spokesperson, Rep. Toby Tiangco, was quoted by TV reporter Kara David as saying: “I think this is the best Sona that P-Noy has delivered. He stuck to the issues, he did not resort to the blame game.”

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If this was the response from the opposition, we can imagine what the reception was like among the President’s supporters.

Analysts and political commentators had expected the sometimes-truculent Mr. Aquino to use the annual rite to go on the offensive again: to again defend the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program in absolute terms, to challenge the Supreme Court for its decision on the DAP, to draw a line in the sand between supporters and critics.

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Instead he adopted a conciliatory tone—literally: The tenor of his address was nonconfrontational, nontriumphal. Indeed, at the end, it became elegiac, even wistful, a sign perhaps that the barrage of criticism he received in the last month or so, culminating in the filing of three impeachment complaints in Congress, had affected a once highly popular president.

He still defended the DAP, but subtly, by highlighting the beneficiaries of DAP-enabled funding. He still made mention of the Supreme Court, but only once, and only in relation to its pending judgment on the case of a judge involved in corruption. He still took a dig at his critics, but took care to limit them only to “those who turned public service into a business” and “those who have no other goal but to overthrow government” (as they are described in the official English version of the Sona).

What Ejercito and Tiangco must have appreciated was Mr. Aquino’s decision not to mention the three (opposition) senators who are currently in detention on plunder charges. What many others responded to was the President’s declaration that he intended to seek a supplemental budget, a welcome signal that he was coming to terms with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the DAP.

Indeed, many of the things he needed to say he was in fact able to say, in his 91-minute speech, but in a noncombative way. But he also accentuated the positive so thoroughly that some of the pictures he drew became caricatures. The four paragraphs he used to describe the state of air travel in the Philippines, for example, are a case study in strategic omission. Here, for example, is Mr. Aquino talking about one specific challenge confronting the industry:

“Today, we continue to receive news that, because of all the tourists and businessmen who wish to visit the Philippines, there is actually a shortage of flights to our country. So, all of the upgrades we have received in aviation are indeed good news: The number of flights will rise, thus providing a solution to the problem. And, through the continued cooperation of the CAAP and our local carriers, we will certainly be able to attract more businessmen and tourists in the coming years. This is a win for all those in the tourism sector; this is a win for the Filipino people.”

But there is another challenge facing the industry, something millions of travelers every year endure: the sorry state of Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, compounded by the lack of a second runway. What is the government doing to solve this problem? He did not say.

He also did not mention support for the freedom of information bills, or speak to the problem of slain journalists, or offer hard-nosed answers to the looming power shortage.

What he did set out to do was reclaim the ground he had lost: With his fifth Sona, he was able to consolidate his political support, reopen lines of communication to the political opposition, defuse tensions with the Supreme Court and, perhaps most important, focus public attention on the 2016 elections. Not in terms of candidates, but in terms of criteria: beyond reform, transformation.

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TAGS: politics, President Benigno Aquino III, Sona 2014
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