Aquino’s inner circle

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The President has an eye for detail, berates officials when they're inconsistent, is deferential to senior citizens in his Cabinet, and listens to people he trusts the most

Illustrations by Jessica Lazaro

As President Benigno Aquino III enters his 3rd year in office, we look closely at his decision-making style and identify officials whose inputs he values the most.

MANILA, Philippines – To whom does President Benigno Aquino III listen when he has to grapple with contentious policy issues? Do a favored few have his ear, is he democratic, or is he a one-track-minded and stubborn decision-maker?

Recent events give an indication of the President’s style.

For instance, when the Supreme Court issued an order in November 2011 allowing former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to travel abroad, President Aquino called for a meeting with key Cabinet officials in Malacañang.

They included Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas II,  Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and several others – the same core group present in discussions on the impeachment of then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and later (dismissed) Chief Justice Renato Corona. 

They tackled a whole range of options, including extraconstitutional steps to keep Arroyo from leaving the country indefinitely, since Aquino had committed to prosecute who had become the face of corruption and abuse of power for many Filipinos.

A source privy to the result of the meeting said there was an argument among some lawyers in the Cabinet who believed that the Chief Executive could not fight the Supreme Court.
 The President was firm.

“He [Aquino] said, ‘They just interpret the law; they are not the law unto themselves.’ It took some time for some of the lawyers in the Cabinet to accept that because lawyers were all trained to accept the word of the Supreme Court as Gospel truth, as the final arbiter, and here comes a President who emphasized that right is right and wrong is wrong; there’s no such thing as morally wrong is legally right,” a Cabinet official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Rappler.

The same group was called back to discuss the impeachment of Corona, a fight that Aquino reportedly put on hold even after the Court’s serial nullification of his Executive Orders, especially Executive Order 1, which formed the Truth Commission tasked to probe alleged irregularities of the previous administration.

Abad said at the start of the administration, the President heeded advice for him not to pick a fight with the chief magistrate, even when he had strongly objected to Corona’s “illegal” appointment before he assumed the presidency.

“There was apprehension whether he should start off  his administration coming out already fighting hard and risk being divisive. That’s why in fairness to him, he listened to that point of view not to fight with Corona first….He gave the former Chief Justice a chance,” he said.

Abad said it appeared that Corona had misinterpreted the President’s gesture as “weakness” and took a hardline position by leading the Court in nullifying several EOs. But even during this time, the President continued to say, “Let’s be patient about this.”

Aquino ran out of patience when the Court issued the TRO. “Sukdulan na ‘yan,” an angry Aquino was overheard saying. (That’s the last straw.) “There were people cautioning him but at that point, he was already quite resolute,” Abad said.

Who earns the trust of this President? At crunch time and when key decisions have to be made, whose advice carries the heaviest weight?
 Abad said it’s difficult to pinpoint which official gave what advice to the President on such major policy decisions, since Aquino brings together all officials for all possible inputs on an issue. The Chief Executive distills the varying opinions and decides from there.

Beyond ‘Noynoying’

It is typical of what is now emerging as the President’s management style. “Noynoying” has become the buzzword that various sectors use to describe the President’s laid-back attitude toward work.

What we’ve gathered behind the scenes show us a different picture, however.

This is a president obsessed with details (down to the footnotes, swears a staff) and consultative but unshakeable once he’s made up his mind. He will not trust a document from a department without the signature of the Cabinet Secretary who heads it. He edits footnotes of briefing papers sent to him.

When listening to a presentation by a Cabinet official, he remembers details and numbers from a previous presentation or slide, and notes if they’re inconsistent. And when they’re inconsistent, he doesn’t mince words in berating an official – even if he’s a friend. The only ones who have escaped his wrath so far, according to one Palace staffer, are the “senior citizens” in his Cabinet: Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. “He’s deferential to them,” the source added.

One time, the President’s line of questioning was reportedly so intense that Finance Secretary Cesar V. Purisima, considered as one of the brightest Cabinet officials, said afterwards, “Parang thesis defense ito.” 

(It’s like a thesis defense.)

“It’s like being tested by the fire. The President makes sure that it passes through really severe questioning on his part,” the source said.

At a briefing conducted by the Department of Health, Aquino surprised the presenter by asking for a distinction between preventive health care and curative health care, and what the proper balance should be between the two, given that the administration’s priority is poverty alleviation. 

Abad confirmed this, and said Aquino’s “meticulous and rigorous” side would appear during project presentations as when he presided over the National Economic and Development Authority board meeting to give final approval to proposed projects. Twelve projects were presented, but after the “oral exam” he approved only 4 because of questions left unanswered.

Abad said the President would even question assumptions and if the presenter is not prepared, he would defer action on the proposal since it deals with public funds.

The downside to this, of course, is when drowned in details, the President may fail to see the big picture. And when he gets more interested in one issue over other pressing concerns, the latter suffer. 

Friends, allies

Yet for all this, the President will listen to people he knows well and who know him well, too.

Best proof of this is that the 4 men he trusts most on matters of policy and crisis management are friends of long standing. 

Based on various interviews with people close to the President, it appears that in major decisions he has made, the President had to include Abad and Roxas in his consultations – even if these pertained to issues outside of their department concerns.
The others known to be close advisers of Aquino are Ochoa and Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, his long-time friend.

Abad and Roxas belong to the ruling Liberal Party and are identified with the so-called Balay faction in the 2010 presidential campaign. Ochoa is with the so-called Samar faction in the campaign. Almendras, on the other hand, straddles both sides and does a lot of things for the President. He troubleshoots for him.

When a presidential adviser got in trouble early this year, it was Almendras who advised him how to deal with the problem. He does things that a presidential chief of staff or even executive secretary would do. And that’s why the Palace decided to drop the pretense: Almendras will soon be named chief of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS).

Abad: The ‘political ideologue’

When told that the impression was that he and Roxas are indispensable in major decisions made by the President, Abad said with a laugh, “I don’t think that anybody is indispensable.” He stressed that the President values the opinion of all Cabinet members, depending on the issue.

Abad said that since many issues have a political dimension, he and Roxas are frequently asked to attend meetings on matters outside their official function, along with Ochoa. Aquino also often calls in Purisima for inputs on finance.

Various sources close to the President told Rappler that in private meetings, the President has described Abad as the administration’s “political ideologue” and is considered as his senior political adviser.

“When there are political ramifications on a particular situation, in addition to the President’s own political analysis, he would also ask the opinion of Secretary Butch as well as Secretary Mar,” one source said.

Abad first served as Cabinet Secretary (agrarian reform) under the President’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino.
 Six years older, the 58-year-old Abad became close to Aquino when the latter joined the House of Representatives in 1998; he mentored the then-neophyte lawmaker. Abad was Batanes Representative in the 8th Congress, and in the 10th to 12th  Congress from 1995 to 2004.

When Aquino ran for the Senate in 2007, Abad served as his campaign manager. Abad said the President seeks advice from him principally on the budget and “secondarily” on politics.

“Since there are just a few of us in the Cabinet experienced in not only electoral politics but politics in general, we get called to deal with the political dimensions of issues that crop up in the Cabinet, whether they be foreign affairs or have to do with police, military, or even financial or economic issues that have political dimensions. I get asked to look at the situation and meet with the concerned officials,” Abad said.

Abad said the President also consults Presidential Political Adviser Ronald Llamas on political matters related to unions, the Church, and sectoral groups such as peasant groups, among others.

Abad and Roxas, with Robredo, were consulted on the synchronization of the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with the national elections.

Abad is primarily responsible for Executive Order 43, dated May 13, 2011, which reorganized the Cabinet clusters to address the 5 priority areas of the Aquino administration to fulfill the social contract it sealed with the people during the campaign.

The Cabinet clusters are on Good Governance and Anticorruption; Human Development and Poverty Reduction; Economic Development; Security, Justice and Peace; and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.

Roxas: The senior politico-economic adviser

In January last year, just a few months before the lapse of the one-year appointment ban on losing candidates, Aquino said Roxas, who had joined his first US trip as an unofficial adviser on business matters, would be a “chief troubleshooter” of his administration.

Roxas was set to join the administration as Presidential Chief of Staff but the unanticipated resignation of then Transportation Secretary Jose “Ping” de Jesus altered his path.

The expertise of Roxas goes beyond the political arena and extends to economics. He was a graduate of the Wharton School of Economics, worked as an investment banker before he became a congressman, served the Estrada and Arroyo administrations as Trade Secretary, before becoming a senator.

“He can straddle both lanes. Some of the economic advisers do not have the advantage of looking at the political perspective,” the source said. Abad said Roxas helps in discussions as he is “good at thinking about options and summarizing what has happened.”

“While his particular assignment is transportation and communications, sometimes he gives the context of a financial issue, or an economic policy question. In his case, it’s informed always by the political dimension and particular economic issue,” he said.

Abad said that Roxas has a “deeper experience and understanding of finance” than him, while he has a “longer experience in politics and a deeper understanding of politics” than other economic managers.

“I have a better understanding of CSOs [civil society organizations] and political movements than Secretary Roxas. So we have our own respective strengths in that case which we bring into the discussion,” he said.

It was Roxas who proposed the idea of the hybrid Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project to take care of so-called “missionary” PPPs that are unlikely to draw private investors because of concerns over return on investments (ROI).

Under the scheme, the government would build financially unattractive but necessary projects like an airport in a missionary route, first using official development assistance (ODA), but for eventual turn-over to the private sector for operation and maintenance.

Almendras: ‘Fiercely loyal but objective’

Among the Cabinet officials, Almendras is considered as personally closest to the President, as they have been friends since they were classmates at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Almendras was president of the Manila Water Company when the President asked him to join his team, and he agreed despite the reported objections of his wife. It may be for this reason, and their long-time friendship, that Aquino has been visibly protective of Almendras, especially when he was being severely criticized for rising fuel prices and the brownouts in Mindanao.

At the Mindanao Power Summit in Davao earlier this year, Aquino said, “To be honest with you, this is not fair. Can we get really good people to accept being the whipping boy for things that are beyond their control? And if you agree with me that he has been unjustly pilloried for quite some time, can we give him a round of applause?”

Abad said the advantage of Almendras over other Cabinet officials is that “he has had longer personal ties with the President, so he knows the President better than most of us.”

“They were classmates, they go way back as friends and the President trusts him with his management abilities and skill,” he said.

When PMS head Julia Abad was on maternity leave late last year, Almendras was often seen in Malacañang, reportedly to help get papers moving. This was on top of his official duties as energy chief.

 Abad confirmed this. “Yes, he was helping out. And especially when there are crisis situations, you would see him here.”

During such meetings, Almendras would provide inputs on communicating an issue or policy to the private sector, among others.
”How do you translate this into something that is understandable by the people? How do you project this into the public arena? He [Almendras] concedes that he’s not a politician like us, but certainly, he’s familiar with the private sector so he would also be a voice trying to anticipate, for example, what the private sector may say about certain policies,” Abad said.

Almendras had spent 29 years as a top executive in the country’s leading corporations prior to his stint in government, developing a reputation for skillful management.

Aquino said in media interviews as early as November last year – the time Almendras was seen frequenting Malacañang – that he was eyeing the appointment of a Secretary to the Cabinet, a position last assumed by Silvestre Bello III in the previous administration. It was believed to be a position meant for Almendras, but it did not pan out, and not even a draft EO was ordered.


With Julia said to be resigning to become a full-time mother to her first child, now 8 months old, the name of Almendras cropped up as a replacement. Aquino would neither confirm nor deny this, but told reporters he would make an announcement about it, which others see as a virtual confirmation.

The PMS has been seen as a kind of counterbalance to the Office of the Executive Secretary, as shown by the experience of the Estrada administration, when a turf war raged between then PMS Chief Leonora de Jesus and Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, who belonged to different cliques in that administration. It was only resolved when de Jesus was moved to the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC).

Almendras and Ochoa are identified with the so-called Balay and Samar groups, respectively, but whether they would be at odds with one another would be difficult to predict at this point. 

Unlike de Jesus and Zamora, Almendras and Ochoa both have a personal relationship with the President. 
A source said that the entry of Almendras as PMS chief is unlikely to ruffle some feathers in the Office of the President, specifically Ochoa, as he would only be filling a “vacuum.”

“Somebody has to take care of the workings of the Cabinet, supporting the President on policy research, his speeches and his travels. That’s the role of the head of the PMS. The Executive Secretary has so many functions – legal, political, administrative. There’s just too much work there,” the source said.

Another source suggested that Ochoa might be threatened by Almendras as the Executive Secretary had reportedly tried to recommend another person for the position.
 But still, another source said, the appointment of Almendras will just meet a need. Besides, the position requires someone who not only enjoys the President’s trust, but also one who can work with him and understands his style of leadership.

“It’s a big advantage to have somebody like Secretary Rene Almendras who is very familiar with President Aquino on a personal and functional level,” the source said.
 Almendras has been described as “fiercely loyal” to the President but despite their friendship, he remains objective in his view on issues.

“He can tell the President what the other Cabinet secretaries would not have the capacity to say,” a source said.
 Almendras reportedly debates with the President in private, but once the Chief Executive makes a decision, he would stand by it just like any other Cabinet official.

Aside from official matters, Almendras is also reported to give the President advice or help on personal matters, whichever way one sees it, and his name had cropped up a couple of times when Aquino was reported to be fancying someone new.
 When Aquino visited Singapore last year, he was rumored to be smitten with broadcast journalist Sabrina Chua, who interviewed him then. 

Almendras reportedly sent a text message to Chua, inviting her to a full Malacañang Palace tour, since she had to wait for some time for an interview with Aquino. (Malacañang flatly denied the President’s supposed interest.)

Almendras was also the one who reportedly first established contact with radio and television personality Grace Lee before Aquino started dating her.
 A source observed that the Energy chief seemed to be “testing the waters” in behalf of the President, perhaps to check if he and Lee had a future in dating, at the very least.

Ochoa: Primus inter pares?

Ochoa was not available for an interview but agreed to respond to questions via e-mail. Asked how he characterized his relationship with Aquino, he said, “The President is my boss. My job is to make his job easier.”

Ochoa and Aquino were not classmates but became good friends after a chance meeting prior to Aquino’s political career. Their instant bond apparently emanated from the ties between their late fathers. The elder Ochoa was a Pulilan mayor who belonged to the Liberal Party and was an avid supporter of the elder Aquino. When he became congressman in 1998, Aquino tapped Ochoa to become his lawyer.

Ochoa said that as provided by the Administrative Code, he, as Executive Secretary, “is tasked to provide the President with input on a whole range of issues, e.g., legal concerns, legislative measures, administrative and governance policies, and the like.”

When asked, Ochoa indicated that there is no single loudest voice among the President’s advisers, since “Cabinet secretaries, as alter egos of the President, get to weigh in on matters pertaining to their respective portfolios, and as such everyone has a voice in the Administration.”

Abad said that while the dominant voice in Palace meetings would depend on the issue being discussed, the Executive Secretary is “primus inter pares” or first among equals.
 “At the end of the day, whether it’s finance, political or something technical, he [the President] always says, ‘You work with the ES on those issues.’ So at the end of the day, he’s like the guy that’s common to all the discussions. So there will be issues where I won’t be there but he’ll be there,” he said.

A check of the President’s official schedule would show Ochoa’s presence in most of his meetings with various officials. He is observed to be quiet during discussions, mostly listening while scribbling down notes.
”He listens more and he’s very selective about his interventions. And I’m sure he also advises the President when everybody’s gone, to give his observations,” Abad said.

A source said the President relies on Ochoa on legal matters, but not so much on policy issues.

Decisions by consensus

While there is a core group in the Cabinet that is on call for major developments, the President is said to be a “consensual” decision-maker, and values the opinion of Cabinet secretaries in their respective fields.

Ochoa said that Aquino would listen to all views on an  issue, ask for additional research, and then “only after getting all the differing positions and the rationales for each one does he decide on the course of action to be taken with regard to the issue.”

Abad said, “The good thing about him is that he allows everyone to say their piece. ‘Sige, debate kayo (go ahead and debate),’ and he just listens. If there are arguments to the contrary, he would probe – how much information do we really know? He’s particular about sifting facts from emotions.”

In the end, however, a veteran Palace resident noted that the President’s main criterion is trust – something that these 4 officials obviously enjoy. – With reports from Glenda M Gloria/

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