How to listen to a Sona

Every year, at the opening of its regular session, the President is required by the Constitution to address Congress.  Following American tradition, this annual speech by the President is called the “State of the Nation Address” or Sona.  Yet such a speech need not be about the state of the nation.  In fact, there is no reference to a Sona in our Constitution.  If he wishes, the President may also speak before Congress at any other time to report on the state of the nation.

In the United States, when newly-inaugurated presidents address Congress just weeks after taking office, their speeches are not officially considered State of the Union addresses.  There is a good reason for this.  A State of the Union Address is the president’s opportunity to inform the people of the overall condition of the nation and the challenges this poses for every citizen. More specifically, it is supposed to be the right moment for the president to state his priorities and to propose a legislative agenda to Congress.  A president who has just assumed office cannot be expected to come up with an accurate assessment of the state of the nation, or to produce a detailed agenda of what needs to be done.

A new president who assumes this task too soon, like the Philippine president, runs the risk of providing an incomplete or distorted picture, one that is likely to be informed more by the residual vitriol of the preceding election than by an objective grasp of the facts.

This has always been one of the delicate paradoxes of democratic politics.  Democracy demands a sharp differentiation between contending political groups. But, when the elections are over, the winner is expected to rise above the din of battle and begin to speak for the whole nation.  Only in this manner does he become a figure of political integration, committed to the pursuit of the common good.  This is the ideal to which all mature democracies aspire.

And so, even in wrenching political transitions, American presidents are given enough space to rid themselves of the toxins from the partisan campaign so they can re-emerge before the nation as its singular leader.  Barack Obama, America’s first black president embraced this role from day one. Before describing the magnitude of the crisis that American society faced, he began his inaugural address thus: “I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”  Then, without any hint of sarcasm, he proceeded to acknowledge the one president who had done the most to bring America to its present woes: “I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.”

These are words that we cannot expect President Noynoy Aquino to say of his predecessor.  Not because he lacks the magnanimity and grace of a true leader, but because people would read insincerity in these words if he said them.  They would not be a truthful description of the nasty way former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo behaved throughout this transition.  I refer, of course, to the spiteful exercise of presidential powers inherent in the “midnight” appointments. It would probably be enough for President Aquino to acknowledge her presence as a former president, but even that could unleash a torrent of heckling.

From all indications, President Noynoy’s first State of the Nation Address is going to be blunt.  It will not feign politeness.  He has promised to state the bare facts of the nation’s present condition.  But, while doing so, he needs to find a way of saying that this is only what we know at this point.  There is far more that will likely be uncovered in the coming months, confirming the wanton way in which the past government violated its contract with the nation’s citizens.  Those responsible will be made to account for their deeds, but the new government will not be deterred by the enormity of the problems left behind.  This needs to be said.

But, again, reference to past errors and abuses can be double-edged.  If overstated, it can create an overwhelming sense of gloom and anger from which the speech may not be able to recover.  No president, even in the midst of the most difficult crises, can afford to communicate a sense of helplessness before the nation’s problems. Certainly not Noynoy, who was precisely brought to the presidency by a surge of the most baffling optimism. He must sound hopeful, and, more importantly, resolute.  Indeed, resoluteness has always characterized the most effective presidential speeches.

“Today, I must say to you,” Gerald Ford told Congress a few months after he became president following the disgraced Richard Nixon’s resignation, “that the state of the Union is not good.” He then reads a litany of facts showing the dire straits in which the country finds itself.  “Now, I want to speak very bluntly.  I’ve got bad news and I don’t expect much, if any, applause.  The American people want action.” From here, he goes into his concrete proposals.  He defines the problem, what the solution requires, and what his government has decided.  He acknowledges that some problems are knottier. He states the general direction in which he intends to solve these, but he asks the public for more time.

That style seems to suit President Noynoy perfectly – a straight-speaking approach to the nation’s problems.  But beyond merely giving the facts, I hope he takes the trouble to explain what they mean, and what the quest for enduring solutions will require of all of us who care for this country.