The President as spin doctor

Nicole Curato

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We saw a virtuous but unresponsive President who still thinks that his personal integrity is enough to create a just society

After the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July, I wrote a piece that describes the President as cheerleader. In that speech, President Aquino played the role of the country’s top morale booster by promoting his administration’s economic and political achievements. That speech was celebratory. It was interrupted by applauses 88 times. Perhaps its triumphant tone was emboldened by the commander-in-chief’s +64 trust rating coupled with the recent election of his handpicked senatorial candidates.  

Three months later, the President delivered another message to the nation. Like the SONA, the speech was simulcast nationwide and generated a great deal of anticipation. This time, however, the speech was delivered in a very different political environment. 

In three months, the administration has witnessed two massive demonstrations calling for the abolition of the pork barrel. The President’s trust rating has dropped by 15 percentage points. Critiques against legislators’ pork have been broadened to questions about the executive’s Disbursement Acceleration Program. 

Indeed, the political context has changed in three months. From the country’s top cheerleader, the President is now forced to be a spin doctor. 

Spin central

The term “spin” originated from a 1980s sports jargon where baseball pitchers were coached to throw the ball in a way that confuses the batter. This has been adopted in political parlance, referring to politicians’ attempts to steer news and public opinion in a direction advantageous to the party or interest group. 

Political spin entails using appealing sound bites to frame public understanding of a complex political issue. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” is an example of an effective (though irresponsible) spin by National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice when critics of the Iraq war pressed her to provide evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. 

Mag-ingat sa hindi tunay” is another example, where Team PNoy’s spin doctors warned voters about the authenticity of candidates pretending to support the administration’s reform agenda. An earlier version of this spin is the distinction between the crooked “wang-wang” politics versus “tuwid na daan.” Often, these sound bites are accompanied by concrete examples of “bad” government officials set straight by the “good” administration. 

It is this type of spin—claims to authenticity and moral high ground—that the public heard not only in last Wednesday’s presidential address but since the beginning of the Aquino administration. The executive’s rhetorical tropes are often hinged on techniques of simplification: that the President is not corrupt, therefore the government is in order. 

Viewed this way, it is not surprising that the President failed to say something new last Wednesday. If the Palace wants to continue governing based on a simple logic, then the President did brilliantly by staying on message. (READ: Ahead of SC ruling, Aquino defends DAP)

Self-righteousness is a stubborn thing

The trouble with staying on message, however, is that the message is passé. Framing politics in terms of good versus evil, virtuous officials versus thieves was relevant three years ago but ceased to be as powerful now that the President is in the latter half of term.  

What a number of us saw last Wednesday was a President still incapable of putting forward brave and sustainable reforms. We saw a virtuous but unresponsive President who still thinks that his personal integrity is enough to create a just society. We saw how self-righteousness can sometimes be more stubborn than self-interest. We saw that good intentions are not enough. 

The presidential address last Wednesday diverted public discourse to back to where we were almost four years ago, when politics was about drawing boundaries between reformists versus trapos in the aftermath of the Arroyo regime. 

But the discourse has moved on. The pork barrel controversy has created the space for Filipinos to have a serious discussion not only about bringing thieves behind bars but also crippling networks of patronage, replacing money politics with political participation and closing loopholes in the budget process.

To date, the Palace remains in the margins of this important discussion by limiting the issue to making thieves accountable.

End of spin

Unfortunately for Malacañang, relying on political spin is bound to fail. We now live in a society where the state’s power to set political truths has been largely diminished. It is a society where an unassuming Facebook post can mobilize thousands of citizens otherwise plugged in their computers to physically come together, express discontent and make concrete demands.

The flow of information and ideas has been democratized through networked forms of organizing and protest, effectively undercutting the power of the President (and other opportunistic politicians for that matter) to take charge of spinning the public agenda. 

This is why it is crucial that Malacañang seriously engages the people’s demands for abolishing pork instead of relying on spin. What the Scrap Pork Movement and other citizen-led initiatives against trapo politics exemplify is the shift of the center of influential political ideas. Creative and bolder alternatives for budget reform emerge from discussions among partisan and unaffiliated citizens. People today come out as persistent, not the type that can be “distracted” by dealing with more than one issue at a time. 

Filipinos are often critiqued for having short memories. We have also been criticized for failing to translate our democratic impulses to sustained engagements that push for political reforms. We are stereotyped for prioritizing personalities in politics rather than focusing on institution-building.

People’s consistent commitment in pressing a popular President to abolish the pork barrel in all its forms and reincarnations is a promising counterpoint to these accusations. It is most unfortunate that a virtuous administration has yet to move on from its outdated political spin and take part in progressive politics. – 

The author is a sociologist from the University of the Philippines. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Australian National University. 

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