President Aquino's reality check
They say Yolanda could break him, and that it came at a bad time: on the last leg of his presidential term, at a time he's been told pork is bad, and in a moment when the demands of legacy and the lure of retirement both burden and beckon him.
It is easy to forget that he came to power without having to exercise it the way the rest of the political class has. Because of this he remains a constant fascination. As a journalist who had enjoyed and suffered 4 presidents before him, I must admit I treat this president differently: he means well, he speaks his mind, and he can be single-minded about complex goals: the RH law, the sin tax law, and the dismissal of a petty and dishonest chief justice, to name a few. He's not the backslapping kind, a quality that riles local politicians and bishops used to presidential flattery. Among his Cabinet, he expects hard work and rarely drops a compliment for it. His heart is often in the right place, though women he's dated may disagree.
Presidents or leaders grow into the job or are diminished by it. This is true in governments, in corporations, in organizations, even in newsrooms. From a once-reluctant candidate who considered presidential power a burden, he has transformed into someone who has adapted both to its trappings and what it can do to make things better. He's had a great ride, too, recovering lost reputation for the Philippines, bringing the country back in the game, and putting to rest all that gossip about his laziness and juvenile recreations.
But Year 2013 jolted him – whether he admits it or not. The second phase of a Philippine president's 6-year term, after all, has always been what we would call the reality check phase. This is more obvious for this one who's probably had the best first phase ever, post Marcos. Two of our most charismatic presidents – his mother and Erap Estrada – have had to deal with coup attempts and ouster moves early on in their terms.
No president has ever had it so good so soon.
Thus while he dives into details and edits footnotes and immerses in every department's budget, I imagine him at the end of each day basking in the big wins, romanced by his favorite music. The rosy years have convinced him he should stick to his style, part of it, his aversion to fixing what he thinks isn't broken. His team benefits from this; but does the nation?
There are broken parts. The various crises that erupted this year exposed them. From where he sits, though, it is hard to see these through the huge praises from here and abroad. That he doesn't take bad news – or those who deliver them – well hasn't helped. That he raises his tolerance level when it comes to friends masks those broken parts.
The little things
Big wins – growing the economy, luring investors, performing for the world stage – usually just mean sweating out the right things for the right reasons. But they should never be achieved at the expense of the little things. The things that make you feel safe when you cross the street, when you travel, when you shop in a store. The things that matter when you pay your bills, when a loved one falls ill, when a disaster strikes, when armed men battle it out in your neighborhood.
They happen too often they fall between the cracks in the bureaucracy. And the only reason we know this is because we'd seen presidents enter their reality check phase, the second leg of their term, encountering the same situation again and again. Robbers get more brazen. Kidnappings escalate. Moribund armed movements suddenly come to life again. Bus drivers get more reckless. Things begin to falter one after the other.
Cory Aquino had to deal with blackouts and rising prices in the middle of her term, not to mention the 1989 coup attempt that came close to toppling her. The worst years of Fidel Ramos started mid-term: the rise of the Abu Sayyaf and the wanton kidnappings in the Filipino-Chinese community. The Philippines was already seen as Asia's next economic tiger, but the 1997 financial crisis happened – bringing down economies. We, of course, know what happened to Erap Estrada before the 2001 mid-term elections. And by the time his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, reached her 4th year in office, "Hello, Garci" erupted.
The 3-year test has its own logic. It reminds presidents of the small wins they had to forego in favor of the big ones. Let's cite one: crime. We have not succeeded in that part largely for two reasons: either our presidents had very bad choices to lead the agency that oversees the police, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), or they treated the campaign against crime as simply that, a campaign marked by photo-ops and braggadocio. They named to these posts either the political operators (Ronnie Puno and the late Robert Barbers, for example) or those they trusted but were painfully raw and inexperienced in local governance (Rafael Alunan III and Mar Roxas, for example). Jesse Robredo, former mayor, was the near-ideal DILG chief, but his boss emasculated him by naming an equally powerful undersecretary, presidential buddy Rico Puno, now resigned.
System catches up
The President will soon see for himself – if he hasn't yet – how tough the last phase is going to be. It's the nature of the beast: the entrenched problems begin to surface once again. The system catches up. It will be payback time. What was swept under the rug in the first 3 years that will now begin to haunt us? What processes and sectors were overlooked? What were the wrong choices that were not immediately addressed?
Ironically, some of the wrong choices have been the two people closest to him: Voltaire Gazmin and Mar Roxas.
There's a running joke in Camp Aguinaldo that the BOG doesn't really stand for Board of Generals, which screens military officers for promotion. It really means Board of Gazmin. The joke mirrors the Gazmin problem from Day One: when you'd worked for or with the man, you are certain to rise in the ranks. Whatever the President says about his favorite secretary, this much is true: Gazmin acts and thinks like a patron and a feudal lord, a quality that doesn't fit an organization that is supposed to be modernizing and preparing itself for its strategic mission of external defense. Nowhere in the bureaucracy is leadership style more crucial than in the armed forces. The top-down organization goes where the leader wants it to go. Despite the best plans and strategic thinking that we are willing to grant some officers, at the end of it, the buck stops with a retired general holding a civilian post who crafts shortsighted plans at night, intoxicated by the fact that he has the ears of the man whose family he once guarded with his life.
When patronage persists and thrives in the military, it remains vulnerable to external and internal shocks. It becomes part of the second-phase festering problem presidents are forced to deal with – whether that takes the form of battlefield blunders or corrupt deals or simply backsliding to unprofessionalism. Beware the quiet problems that are not seen because they don't transform into mutinies; they mutate into other forms.
What's wrong with Roxas, on the other hand, is all there – 42 minutes on YouTube. In an uncanny way, the Roxas-Romualdez episode on Yolanda made me better understand the other crisis that the Roxas-Gazmin tandem handled before: the bloody and protracted Zamboanga siege last September.
You need to sign this paper, Roxas insisted to Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez. You have to formalize national government's intervention in this crisis, he said, as dead bodies littered the streets and thousands cried for food and water. In Zamboanga City, he did the same: everything had to be black and white. Surrender? If the rebels want to surrender they should show proof, like signing – in the middle of the night – a document that declares they are surrendering. No, the government won't take feelers or whispers or backchannel efforts. Everything had to be done the proper way, preferably discussed through Powerpoint presentations. By the 5th day of the Zamboanga crisis, some members of the crisis committee were in tears over the utter lack of direction on how to end it.
Why was this analysis-paralysis at the Zamboanga crisis center not widely exposed? Because that war was a controlled, filtered environment. All information passed on to the media by that handsome military spokesman had to be cleared. So that when Rappler came out with a story on the surrender of MNLF rebels, all hell broke loose. Roxas scolded police officials for allowing their underlings to talk without clearing with him. The entire officialdom scoffed: What surrender? They never signed any surrender papers!
In Tacloban, unfortunately, dead bodies and starving residents greeted reporters as soon as they landed at the broken airport. There was no time or energy to manage the media play, though the crisis managers could not be faulted for lack of effort. The police general who said 10,000 must have died from the typhoon was eventually sacked. Don't report dead bodies unless they're certified dead by health officials, local executives were told. So this explains the discrepancy: local officials counted the dead on the streets, the NDRRMC would reduce that count absent documentation. The thought makes you bang your head against the wall.
Instincts, common sense, courage, experience – one summons all these during crisis situations. Zamboanga and Yolanda showed that the President's crisis secretaries either failed to do this or are not so gifted. The system is bound to catch up with them, again.
But the President abhors firing people, that's why we have seen neither a revamp nor major changes in his Cabinet since he assumed office in 2010. In the case of resigned Customs chief Ruffy Biazon, for example, the President had already been advised to let go of him. His advisers had begun scouting for a replacement as early as July 2013. But he delayed it at his own peril. A red-faced Biazon had to quit in December after being name respondent in a graft complaint over the pork barrel scam.
A controversial presidential friend, Virgie Torres, created enemies at the Land Transportation Office as soon as she was named its head. Her unpopularity made her so ineffective, but the President insisted on keeping her there. Until she was caught on video playing in a casino. Torres resigned in October.
Moving further back in time, at the DILG, presidential friend Rico Puno got so controversial that he got entangled in a botched ammunition deal for the Philippine National Police. This proved to be the last straw for the President, prompting him to quietly consider other men for the job. Yet the boss dilly-dallied. In August 2012, Robredo died in a plane crash, and Puno was accused of attempting to secure Robredo's secret documents in his office and condominium. The President eventually asked Puno to resign.
It's problematic to allow situations to make crucial decisions for the President.
Does he think firing his own people would mean an indictment of his decisions? Or does he freeze during tough moments like this, unable to reach a judgment before he has considered every possible option and has processed everything? Does he sometimes think he is above criticism, sending the same signal to his men who suspect a plot behind every negative story? Or does he now have his own muted version of reality? The second phase of his term won't allow him – and them – that luxury.
2014 should make the President and his team take stock of things that would give way because they're bound to give way – if unaddressed. It shouldn't take another daylight assassination in a CCTV-handicapped airport to remind them of things put in the back burner. Or for economic numbers to tank before they realize some things got to give. Or for crimes to escalate because Camp Crame has been spending too much time facing the media.
The system catches up. And it catches fast those who think they're fixing it when they're in fact ducking it. – Rappler.com