Truth and power
PRESIDENT AQUINO’S sixth State of the Nation Address is his last—a constitutional fact that has been highlighted even by his own officials, as though they cannot wait to leave office themselves. But there is a strategy behind the emphasis they place on “last.” They want to contrast their principal’s last Sona with that of Gloria Arroyo’s; unlike his predecessor,
Mr. Aquino will be certain to bid both chambers of Congress a categorical goodbye.
The strategy is sound, but it is also, like many other Aquino initiatives, short-sighted. That is to say, the time for comparing his presidency with that of Arroyo’s, as though that were the main measure of achievement, is long past. This short-sightedness may be the defining characteristic of Mr. Aquino’s time in office. Elected on a wave of sympathy generated by his iconic mother’s death, in an election that promised change from the controversies of a scandal-plagued presidency, Mr. Aquino assumed office determined to be Arroyo’s opposite. But this singleness of mind, this constancy of purpose, has worn out its welcome. If in today’s address President Aquino dwells yet again on the contrast between his administration and the previous one, this short-term-ism will be there for all to see.
We wish to be clear. We believe Mr. Aquino has had the best satisfaction or approval ratings, over the longest time, of any president since 1986 largely because he has proven to be Arroyo’s opposite: No personal scandal has attached to his name, no misbehaving spouse or overly influential relative has been countenanced, no lingering legitimacy crisis or election fraud stigma has marked his term.
But a comparison with Arroyo’s nine years in office is much too limiting a framework, to measure a presidency by.
We realize it is extremely difficult to mount a sustained campaign against corruption in government, and the President deserves due credit for unseating a chief justice who deliberately hid most of his wealth and three incumbent (and very popular) senators who figured prominently in the billion-peso pork barrel scam. The fact that many whistle-blowers have come out is proof of greater trust in the administration and its officials.
But as crucial as that challenge is, there are other challenges, and other indicators with which to benchmark progress or the lack of it. The President may have only inherited the MRT mess, but it has certainly gotten worse under his term. The dehumanization of the thousands of prospective passengers suffering a daily ordeal cannot be blamed on Arroyo, or on her administration alone. The greater burden must be borne by the Aquino administration, who has watched the MRT system deteriorate with an inexplicable mixture of incompetence and callousness.
There are also other frameworks, historical or otherwise. Unfortunately, the President seems to recognize only two historical eras: the immediate past, and the dark days of the dictatorship. He does not go back far enough. It is likely that his disastrous speech before the surviving kin of the Special Action Force troopers killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, which came across as insensitive, issued directly from a lack of appreciation of history. Instead of dwelling on his own father’s martyrdom (to be sure, an example of heroic patriotism accepted by millions of Filipinos), he could have drawn on our country’s tradition of young men dying on fields of battle going all the way back to, and beyond, the Philippine Revolution.
Our hope for his last Sona, then: That he grab the opportunity to take the long view, and consider his administration’s performance under the aspect of history. Let him compare his record, not with Arroyo (or with Arroyo alone), but with other presidents too—especially popular ones like Manuel Quezon and Ramon Magsaysay.
Let him account for his popular standing, by telling us what he did with all that good will. But also let him speak about his failures, because that is, as his boss, what the people need to hear: If political capital cannot end, say, the MRT crisis or the Mindanao power shortage, let him tell the people what will. Even more important, tell the nation what went wrong. His last State of the Nation Address will then be remembered as that very rare thing: power speaking truth.
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