The President at 5 percent

If the ratings are bad and they cannot be refuted, tthen the next best thing is to find worthy reasons to account for them.  This seems to be how the spin doctors at Malacanang are dealing with President Estrada’s tragic descent to unpopularity.

Instead of humbly acknowledging the mistakes that have led to a growing perception of his basic unfitness for the nation’s highest office, the President himself continues to sound as if there is nothing wrong with the way he is discharging his duties.  The only admission he has been willing to make is his failure to pacify what he regards as an overly critical and adversarial press.

Now he is trying to pre-empt the meaning of the latest Social Weather Stations survey results that gave him an all-time low net approval rating of 5 percent by attributing them to 3 causes: his determined effort to amend the economic provisions of the constitution, rising oil prices, and relentless media criticism of his presidency.

No evidence has been presented to show that these are what caused the President’s popularity to plunge, but Malacanang seems bent on giving the latest bad news an honorable sheen. The reference to the constitutional change issue as a reason for the low ratings casts President Estrada in the role of a selfless and even heroic figure who is ready to forego short-term personal popularity in exchange for the country’s long-term good.

The reference to rising oil prices, on the other hand, portrays him as a hapless victim of market forces and of economic policies that were already there before he became president. And finally, his appeal to media to minimize unfair negative reporting of his person implies that it is the media’s behavior that needs changing and not his own.

Needless to say, none of these reasons can provoke the kind of candid self-assessment that will trigger a decisive change in the Estrada administration’s present course.  Listening to the President argue for constitutional change gives one the distinct impression that he is championing it more out of a desire to be identified with something selfless and non-political than from any real appreciation of economic strategy.  There are a thousand and one ways of stimulating economic growth that do not entail amending the basic charter of a nation.  He has not shown why constitutional change at this time is critical to the country’s economy.

On the other hand, the constant allusion to the sins of the Ramos administration in order to explain the government’s inability to get anything going is becoming very annoying.  He was around as Vice President during those six years, but did he say anything when the policies and programs which he is now criticizing were being crafted?

No, Mr. Estrada’s approval ratings have been falling dramatically not because of his advocacy of constitutional change, nor because the public blames him for the rise in oil prices.  The media may have been brutal and unsparing in its criticism, but it has seldom been unfair. The President has only himself to blame for the low scores that a disenchanted public is giving him after waiting more than a year for any indication of judicious leadership.

His command of issues, when he is not reading prepared speeches, hardly inspires confidence.  His own weekly “Jeep ni Erap” televised program has become an unwitting vehicle for exposing his superficial grasp of issues.  In a talk-show of which he is supposed to be the principal host, he often looks bored and clueless.

The presidency is an intensive school for public affairs.  One can acquire a jargon and bits of statistics to dazzle the uninformed.  But they are not what the office teaches in the long term.  The wealth of information, condensed in daily briefings on nearly every decision that must be made, confers on even the most unprepared occupant — provided he/she is studious and reflective — the wisdom and perspective needed to run a nation well.

Over the past year, I believe that what has occupied the public mind is the perception that the President has been lacking in good judgment and wise counsel.  This is compounded by the unsettling suspicion that the country is once more being parceled out as territories for exploitation by relatives, cronies, and political funders.

The poor, who brought him to power on the premise that the man they idolized for his portrayal of common folk on film understands their needs better realize by now that they have been deceived. They watch in dismay as he defends and coddles the dubious characters who are thought to have bankrolled his campaign, while he reserves to the poor ritualistic displays of public charity.

The President thinks that the occasional coarseness of his language and demeanor keeps him accessible to the poor. The poor may often find him endearing and funny but they also demand that a president be somebody they can respect.  Everyone laughs at jokes about powerful people, but it is disturbing that jokes about Erap revolve around the unchanging theme of simple-mindedness.  That is not a laughing matter for a nation.

In the age of mass media, more and more movie and television icons will be pressed to run for public office.  Given the existing mode of recruitment to political leadership, we may seem fated as a nation to be governed by stars that have nothing beyond their glow.  But we should not despair.  There are hopeful signs that at the threshold of a new century, a new generation is being formed that is better equipped to tell the difference between illusion and reality.

Happy New Year to all!


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