What makes a leader popular?
Ever since the Children of Israel chose who to lead them to the Promised Land (Moses got the job), politicians have been preoccupied with this question. Legions of PR consultants live and die on this query.
The matter is relevant to President Aquino who in a year has seen his popularity rise, fall and rise again for uncertain reasons. His latest numbers are an approval rating of 77%, up from 71% in May.
Between the two surveys, there was the Senate probe on Mike’s helicopters, GMA’s hospitalization, the 2004 and 2007 fraud allegations, and the President’s Tokyo rendezvous with the MILF. Perhaps more to the point, P-Noy also sold his Porsche and declined to meet with Paris Hilton.
Bill Clinton, the quintessential politician, said this when asked: “ The people hire you to win for them and if you don’t do that and they don’t feel like winners, they are not going to give you much credit.”
People want to associate with winners, hence the popularity of Pacquiao, the Dragon boaters, the Azkals and Supsup. What is a winner in political terms?
The answer depends largely on the way the question is posed. Thus President Obama scores poorly (34%) when asked about his job satisfaction yet does considerably better when compared to Republican leaders.
Similarly, Aquino gets “barely passing” grades when respondents were queried about his record on poverty reduction yet gets a high trust rating when reminded of the ills of his predecessor.
This “comparison” factor is why Malacanang ceaselessly drones on the failings of its previous occupant.
However, as a governance tool, this strategy has a limited shelf life. At some point, a leader starts to own the issues. Obama is now seen to be accountable for the problems of the U.S. economy notwithstanding the mess he inherited. After 16 months in office, Aquino likewise has to take responsibility for his presidency going forward.
Without the lifeboat of the GMA misdeeds, how does the President keep his standing with the people?
The President should set a vision for the country and then diligently strive until the work matches the vision. This is the story to which the nation will attach itself and upon which he will be judged.
The vision should be large, meaningful and clear.
The vision should be ambitious, should transport us to a place that, while distant, is imaginable and possible. Like King’s “I have a dream”, it should be a journey of hope, fulfilling aspirations that are proper and common to a people.
It should be substantive in that it captures the material, human and spiritual longings of the nation. It should be about jobs, healthcare, shelter, education, and the environment; but it should also be about justice, freedom, values and the pursuit of happiness.
The message should be simple in its clarity so the lowliest person can buy into it, make it part of himself.
Talking to a Cabinet Secretary about a controversial but important program he told me: “ But, Leo, P-Noy will expend too much political capital”. I answered: “Sir, the striving in itself will build political capital.”
People want a leader who fights for what he believes in. The President’s decision to send our outdated and outgunned frigate to the Spratlys was a gesture of bravado but it resonated with the people. We like feisty.
Achievements are important but they should be the natural outcome of the process. If the governance is right, the results will follow.
Leaders are observed for how much they break into a sweat, how committed they are to the task. This, in my opinion, is the transformation that has taken place in P-Noy and which may account for his renewed popularity. One notices in the man a new sense of purpose absent a year ago (I was not being facetious when I added the sale of his sports car and his greater social self-awareness to the circumstances that may have turned around his ratings). The President, I feel, is increasingly recognizing his place in history.
So what makes for a popular leader, preferably the Mandela kind?
As Clinton said it is someone who makes us feel like winners. It is someone who has set a path that is worthwhile and is doing his darnedest, even possibly giving of his life, to get us there. And he does this not for duty, applause, or emolument.
He does this because he cares.