The President as cheerleader

Nicole Curato

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Without addressing criticisms and controversies, the SONA renders the demands of citizens invisible

President Aquino’s speech last Monday highlights an inherent tension in the role of a President delivering a State of the Nation Address.

The President needed to be a cheerleader – a morale booster to civil servants, the troops and the people. As commander-in-chief, he assured soldiers and policemen that their welfare is his utmost concern. He cited ongoing housing and livelihood programs dedicated to uniformed personnel.

As chief executive, he praised the exemplary performance of public servants such as Cabinet officials and disaster relief workers.

And as leader of the nation, he celebrated the contributions of citizens committed to “true social transformation.”

Triumph over adversity was a standard trope. An image of a struggling man on a wheelchair doing his patriotic duty to vote was flashed on the screen followed by a photo of the unarmed policewoman who outsmarted a criminal.

The rhetoric of praise was sharp when contrasted with the rhetoric of shame. After celebrating the efforts of his favorite Cabinet officials, underperforming agencies were dressed down and threatened with a warning that the President’s patience had run out. Indeed, the SONA was used as venue for a collective pat on the back. Through statistics and human props, the President tried to make a case that the “straight path” is the right path.

However, the President is not just a cheerleader tasked to bring positive energy to an anxious crowd. He is also an elected official accountable to citizens. This is where the tension lies. 

As the country’s topmost official, it is imperative that the President gives a clear and honest explanation not only of what his administration got right but also what it got wrong. After all, the basic definition of accountability means to give an account. It means giving an inventory of relevant information one owes to the public. It provides justifications for the administration’s actions, humbly explains their shortcomings and what they intend to do to make things better.

Connecting the dots

The SONA, at best, partially fulfilled this obligation.

The President explained the problems facing the SSS pension scheme, the reasons for the delay of PPPs as well as the limitations in modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

However, a speech that had deeper appreciation of a SONA as a platform for  accountability could have taken great care in making sense of big issues by drawing connections between them.

It could have explained the reasons for the widening inequality in the country – why the 40 richest families in the Philippines doubled their income in the past year while 10.6 million families consider themselves poor and 3.9 million households experience involuntary hunger. It could have explained what a 7.8-percent growth means to Filipinos in the context of 600,000 agricultural workers losing their jobs and water concessionaires passing on income tax expenses to consumers. It could have justified why taking a foreign loan to give cash grants to poor families is worth it especially for taxpayers who will shoulder this debt until 20 years from today.

The SONA could have been more meaningful had the President provided explanations and not just a report. While a speech supported by quantitative evidence does have merit, the presentation of facts is only as meaningful as its accompanying interpretations.

A judicious audience could easily consult the appended technical report if one were after statistics and fine details. But the SONA is a distinct event to set the public agenda. It is delivered by the President who has to explain why particular decisions were made and why he continues to deserve the mandate given by the people. This is important at a time when class divides are becoming more exposed, with middle classes questioning the “preferential treatment” given to informal settlers up for relocation and workers demanding wage hike as big businesses register unprecedented levels of profit.

A speech that is accountable is also one that responds to rather than trivializes criticisms. Barbed comments on green energy advocates– those who will keep quiet once they are “busy fanning themselves during brownouts” – and the youth that “complains on Facebook” devalue rather than deepen ongoing conversations about shared problems and solutions. Sarcasm simplifies rather than engages the complexity of public opinion on a range of issues.

Without addressing criticisms and controversies, the SONA renders the demands of citizens invisible. It privileges the lens of those who experienced gains but silences the voice of those who still demand more. The President could not credibly claim “this is your SONA” if he did not substantively engage what unlike-minded people had to say.

The President has two SONAs left. It would be good to hear a more engaging and responsive speech. The move towards a mature democracy is one that does not infantilize citizens by dismissing them as whiners. It is one that seeks to promote complex understanding of social issues. Citizens may not end up happy but at least they’ve heard the truth. –

Nicole Curato, PhD is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Australian National University. She was an assistant professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines.

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