Imperial presidencies and the art of institutional combat

Patricio N. Abinales

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Imperial presidencies and the art of institutional combat
'The battle between Aquino and the Supreme Court, and Obama and the House of Representatives are not maneuvers and counter-maneuvers by people thirsty for power. They are more the inevitable result of institutional combat'

How about we try to place the political events here and at the other side of the Pacific at a comparative perspective? 
In the Philippines, President Aquino has aggressively defended the Executive’s right to use “savings” from the national coffers to compensate for the lack of resources that some social welfare projects are suffering from. His critics – a coterie of strange bedfellows: communists, pundits belonging to the political center, marginalized Arroyo-ites and Marcos era acolytes – have assailed him for wantonly spending public funds without the proper constitutional mandate, their anger doubling up after the Supreme Court declared the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) unconstitutional. They attributed the presidential defense of the DAP as evidence of a creeping authoritarianism that is really the core of Aquino’s persona.

In the United States, attempts by President Obama to get a handle on the devastating impact of climate change and his administration’s efforts to redirect the increasingly heated conversations on immigration “reforms” to more a meaningful exchange, have been tagged by his Republican opponents as evidence of abuse of power. The ignoramus Sarah Palin ratcheted up the rhetoric by calling for Obama’s impeachment to deter this ambition. 

PNoy’s and Obama’s opponents pin the success of their attacks on the remarkable ability of Americans and Filipinos to easily develop political amnesia. Quietly they also pray that this propaganda will deflect public attention from equally potent ripostes by the Yellow crowd: that Obama and Aquino are babes in the woods when it comes the issue of despotism. That honor goes to their predecessors – George W. Bush and Gloria M. Arroyo.

‘The art of institutional combat’

US President Barack Obama and President Benigno Aquino III at the state dinner for the US leader at Malacañang Palace on April 28, 2014. Malacañang photo bureau
But by ascribing these actions to personal ambitions, Aquino’s and Obama’s critics have unwittingly added to a profound transformation of these political systems with the rise, survival, and flourishing of an imperial presidency.  This expanded power of the office has come at the expense of the other branches of government. In response, Congress and the courts have also fought back, paving the way to what my former American politics professor calls “the art of institutional combat.”

The beginnings of the imperial presidency could be traced back to the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt and Manuel Quezon expanded presidential power tremendously, ostensibly to cope with economic and politics crisis. They were not completely successful – Roosevelt’s social welfare programs were opposed by the Supreme Court; Quezon’s authoritarian drift was disrupted by World War II – but the presidency did not also revert back to its old “wimpy” self where it kowtowed to congressional pique and fancy.

In fact, presidential powers continued to grow, albeit incrementally. Here a new executive decree, there, a new agency under the Office of the President; here the addition of one player in Cabinet policy/decision making, there a move by congressional allies to devote more resources and bigger budgets to executive offices. 

A president’s illusions of despotic grandeur sped up the expansion of presidential power. Nixon and Reagan used and abused presidential prerogatives to further their ambitions (Watergate in Nixon’s case; the Iran-Contra deal in Reagan’s) but the administrative results of these perfidious actions were never altered or eliminated by their successors. Carter and Clinton used these powers to push their respective agenda (human rights and Bosnian intervention, as illustrations). The Democrat Obama has not overturned the surveillance policy of his predecessor, the Republican George W. Bush.

Marcos and beyond

Marcos wanted to replicate and also go beyond Quezon by issuing thousands of decrees and bringing in hitherto professional state agencies like the military and the technocracy into politics. When he was overthrown in 1986, the democrats Aquino, Ramos and Estrada, did very little to eliminate all these additions to presidential power. Gloria Arroyo saw the value of “state strength” and also sought to emulate Don Manuel by making the most of what Marcos had written into law. 

So what we are seeing in these countries’ politics is not simply a contestation between go-getting individuals, but the persistence and the successes of their respective imperial presidencies. The battle between Aquino and the Supreme Court, and Obama and the House of Representatives are not maneuvers and counter-maneuvers by people thirsty for power. They are more the inevitable result of institutional combat – first between Congress and the presidency, and of late with the Supreme Courts flexing their muscles.

Aquino and Obama will soon step down from the presidency. (This belies their critics’ assertions that we have two authoritarians at the presidential palace. Both have no intention of extending their presidencies, so how can they be tagged as despotic or power-hungry?) Their successors may be their antipodes. (The two J’s: Jojo Binay and Jeb Bush?) But I doubt if they too will not get sucked into the whirlpool of imperial presidencies and institutional combat. –

Patricio N. Abinales teaches at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa. He co-wrote with Donna J. Amoroso State and Society in the Philippines (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).  

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