“What a feeling, being’s believing, now I’m dancing for my life.” Lyrics from Flashdance.
It is an axiom that audiences remember little of a speech, especially one an hour and a half long. All that is left is a feeling.
So it was with the President’s SONA.
The President spoke glowingly of his Administration’s achievements, the numbers, the accolades from foreign analysts (“The Philippines is no longer a joke”) and local folk. He spoke of our economic strides notably in business process outsourcing and tourism. He talked of the gains in rice production, coconut drinks and infrastructure; and our improved credit rating.
He mentioned the new culture in Government, the meritocracy, the integrity and the transparency. He talked tough about nailing the scoundrels in our midst and their “padrinos”. The audience lapped the stuff.
He repeated the theme of SONAs past, about our lost decade under the GMA Administration, how we cannot simply “forgive and forget “, how criminals must be answerable or we would be remiss in our historical responsibility.
He spoke as best he could of our sovereignty over the Philippine Seas.
He referred obliquely to responsible parenthood but could not quite mention its legal form, the RH Bill. There were too many pro-lifers in the audience. It was not a time to rattle the cage.
He singled out his seeming favorites in the Cabinet: Singson, (DPWH), a perennial pet having been cited in the last three SONAs; Almendras (DOE), his new go-to guy, one senses P-Noy’s affection for him; Jimenez (DOT), his latest recruit, the Colgate-like video testimonials were probably his idea. Roxas (DOTC), Villanueva (TESDA), Alcala (DA), and Carpio-Morales (Ombudsman) were also recognized. Did the unmentioned Cabinet officers feel left out?
But he reserved his best and most inspirational words for the people. This year’s SONA was an ode to the man in the street. It is a good time to be Filipino. It is all because of you. Nothing is impossible if we unite. These phrases were the SONA moments.
The address, good as it was, could have been strengthened in two ways. First, the President could have borrowed from the preamble of the Constitution (“We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God … to build a just and humane society…”) and introduced a spiritual dimension to his reform agenda. This would have set a moral tone for the country.
Two, the President could have given us the bad news with the good news. And the bad news is the poverty and the income disparity in our community are not tenable. Economically, we are falling behind in global competitiveness. Administratively, our public services -education, health, shelter, security and justice- are not adequately serving the common man.
Filipinos want to be leveled with, they do not want to be flattered nor condescended to. The poor, in particular, want to know their leaders understand how tough their lives are. The President could have told them, simply, “Yes, I hear you”, that would have gone a long way.
I mention this is because despite the real accomplishments of P-Noy’s presidency, his poll ratings continue to decline and the question is why. If everything is so great, how come too many do not feel better off? If everything is so wonderful, how come so many crimes go unpunished and journalists assassinated? If everything is so rosy, why is there still little justice for so many Filipinos?
When asked what was the biggest mistake of his term, U.S. President Obama said: “It was thinking this job was about getting the policy right. That’s important. But the purpose of the Presidency is also to tell a story to the people that gives them a sense of unity, purpose, and optimism, especially during hard times.”
President Aquino’s SONA was a well delivered narrative that will be remembered not for its particulars but for the good feeling it left us, the sense that things are improving even if possibly not fast enough. It instilled us with hope.
The President credited the Filipino for his Government’s achievements. He wanted us to feel proud and accomplished but he also wanted to convey a subliminal message and it is this: That ultimately we are each accountable for who we are and who we can be. It is the choices we make in our leaders and the values we hold which will determine the nation that ours can become.
The President has laid down a challenge for us as for himself: The land of promise is distantly visible but we must up the march because time is short and the headwinds strong. Even now we hear the political wolves baying at our fringes, they sense the good old days are soon here again and they can hardly wait.
Can we allow this to happen?