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Respect, honesty and hope

I listened to President Aquino’s fifth State of the Nation Address with an equal mix of hope and trepidation.

After all, it was coming barely a month after the Supreme Court decision on the Disbursement Acceleration Program, and the President’s vociferous, some would say belligerent, defense of the DAP. It was coming after weeks of increasingly intense debates—in social media, mainstream newspapers and TV, and other public venues—where not just the legitimacy of the DAP but also the President’s fitness to lead were being questioned. It was coming days after impeachment complaints were brought against the President at the House of Representatives.

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So, yes, I had mixed emotions. I was hopeful that the President would tone down his sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, find a way to move forward, and once again be the statesman. At the same time, I dreaded the possibility that, firm in his positions, he would throw more fuel on an already raging fire, leading to another round of even more virulent, more divisive arguments about the DAP and his presidency.

What he actually did surpassed all of my most hopeful expectations.

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Let me be clear, lest I be accused—as I am sure I will be—of being nothing more than another administration cheerleader, a “yellow zombie,” as some Facebook critics colorfully put it: I did not agree with everything the President said in his Sona. In fact, I disagree vehemently with some of his points.

But it was in the overall tone, and in the unprecedented honesty of his closing, that my hopes were met and, in fact, exceeded.

To my mind, there is no question that the President’s 2014 Sona was about him reaching out—to the Supreme Court, to his political rivals, to the millions of Filipinos whose trust in him has taken a vicious beating in the past weeks. True, he gave a rather damning indictment of some of his critics, but it was hardly the “if-you’re-not-with-me-you’re-against-me” paradigm some might insist it was. It was simply the President singling out the most extreme of his critics—or perhaps, the ones with the most glaring and self-serving of agendas—those for whom clearly nothing would ever be “good enough,” and encouraging the rest to work with him in finding a way forward.

And that was what we exactly needed to see in this Sona—a president willing to work within constitutional bounds and committed to engage to find a way forward; a president ready to rise above partisanship and begin the process of conciliation; a president we can trust to lead, not just his Cabinet, his party, or his allies, but the nation.

I imagine it was not easy for the President to do as he did. I worked for him for almost two years, and I know firsthand how stubborn he can be, particularly when he is convinced that he is in the right. And it is precisely because I know this that I all the more appreciate the gesture of respect and conciliation he made last Monday.

There is also, of course, the powerful honesty in the concluding paragraphs of his Sona. This was the moment when he stopped glancing at the teleprompters, and started speaking off the cuff, and, I would like to think, from the heart.

Cynics will say that the President’s uncharacteristic, and surprising, display of emotion was nothing but theater. They will insist that it was a cheap and transparent ploy to gain sympathy. They will say that it had no place in the Sona.

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I will disagree.

For me, the President’s honest—and, I insist, courageous—display of vulnerability drove home an important point: that in the face of criticism and debate, that despite our disagreement and disappointment, we have a President who does what he does, because he believes it is right.

And that is no small thing. When I look back on our history as a nation, it is sad to realize that we have had so many leaders who acted out of self-interest, or self-preservation, or self-aggrandizement, but so few who acted simply because they felt it was the right thing to do.

I know, of course, that “doing right” is not a guarantee of wisdom, fairness, or good governance. And as I said, I strongly disagree with some of the President’s calls, whatever his motivation may have been for making them. I did not like his assessment of “Yolanda” relief efforts, or his apparent support for the long-discredited policy of off-site resettlement for informal settlers, or his silence on the enactment of the FOI (freedom of information) law. And, believe me, I have every intention of taking these issues up.

But in my disagreement, I nonetheless take heart from the belief that the President I am engaging with, the leader I am trying to convince, is someone who is honestly arguing on the basis of what he thinks is sound policy, and not simply someone seeking to profit by selling out public interest.

I have a President I can respect, even as I engage him in discussion and debate.

And that engagement does occasionally bear fruit. In the Sona, one of the points that stood out the most to me was the President’s appeal to Congress to take up the task of defining key concepts in the budget process. This is one of the main initiatives that we in Akbayan have time and again urged the President to take up, and in this Sona, he did.

With two years remaining in his presidency, there will undoubtedly be more discussion, more disagreement, more disappointment. But in this Sona, I was reminded that there will also be hope—hope for an honest exchange of views, hope for fruitful engagement, hope for change.

And I look forward to working to see as much of that hope fulfilled.

Ibarra “Barry” Gutierrez III represents the Akbayan Party List in the House of Representatives. He is a former professor and director of the Institute of Human Rights at the UP College

of Law.

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TAGS: column, honesty, hope, Ibarra ‘‘barry’’ Gutierrez iii, president Aquino iii, respect, Sona
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