Surveys will not be the final judge
(The Philippine Star) - August 3, 2014 - 12:00am

With the latest surveys showing a drop in the president’s approval rating, it would appear that the predicted downward curve of any administration towards its last three years always comes through. But the State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Aquino was well received and gave his popularity an upward spike judging from the reaction of many, which could be attributed to a number of reasons. One, it “did not live up to expectations” in the sense that it was not confrontational or arrogant in tone. And contrary to predictions, the president’s speech did not touch on the senators implicated in the pork barrel fund scam or the adverse ruling of the Supreme Court on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). Neither was there any “GMA bashing” which was a welcome respite to many.

When the president became emotional as he invoked the legacy of his parents, many sympathized with his frustration at not being able to do more through the reforms he has initiated. That the president continues to be annoyed at those who keep criticizing his administration was also very apparent. But being president of any country has never been and will never be a walk in the park, and being criticized (and sometimes crucified) is “par for the course” – whether criticisms are legitimate or personal. That’s what free speech is all about – with a few exceptions, of course.

Ironically, the noisiest and most spiteful criticisms come from leftist and militant groups that recycle their slogans and denunciations against every sitting president, pretty much like the way designers make one-size-fits-all clothes. And to think many of them wouldn’t even have a voice were it not for former President Cory Aquino who freed Communist rebels led by Joma Sison.

But that’s part and parcel of a democratic system of government — the exercise of free speech — including the liberty to express criticism, voice out disagreement, or speak out against the excesses of those in power. The freedom of speech including the right to criticize is something that the president should be well aware of, considering his father practically died fighting for the right to express criticism against government, while his mother is credited for restoring democracy and all the attendant freedoms that go with it.

By objectively listening to contrary views or perspectives, a leader can gain useful insight that would help him or her gauge whether an initiative is achieving the desired effect or not. While people appreciate the reforms being undertaken by this administration to curb graft and corruption, there are certain sectors that have legitimate concerns on reforms that could also adversely affect the economy, like the BIR rule for banks to disclose confidential account details or financial information that could disrupt the financial sector. Worse, the same information could be used by criminal elements to target certain vulnerable individuals.

Another point that people found positive in P-Noy’s SONA is when he said he would seek a supplemental budget from Congress — which many took as a tacit signal that he is accepting the Supreme Court decision regarding the DAP. Many also interpret it as a realization on the part of the president that in a democracy, there are checks and balances that have been put into place to curb any potential abuse of authority by any branch of government.

Instead of chastising critics, the president could have used that opportunity to strengthen his message by saying that democracy is flourishing under his administration — because people can express their sentiment against the government without fear, and that the checks and balances are firmly in place. But the fact is, you can never please everybody — especially those who have made it their mission in life to be contrarian and disparaging.

Even US President Obama is getting criticized left and right for his policies and administrative orders. In fact, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted to sue Obama for allegedly abusing his authority and violating the US Constitution. Republicans are accusing Obama of overstepping boundaries in pushing his healthcare program by making unilateral changes to the “Affordable Care Act” popularly known as Obamacare.

Like President Aquino, Obama has all the “good intentions” in pushing for reforms. However, congressmen say Obama has “practically rewritten the law without following the constitutional process” — in effect bypassing Congress which is a constitutional violation. This is almost exactly the same argument being used by DAP critics who said President Aquino abrogated the role of legislators.

Being president has never been easy especially in a country like the Philippines where most people are hard to please. It also means making hard decisions —  just like the sign on the desk of US President Harry Truman that said “The buck stops here” — meaning he can’t pass on the decision to someone else.  

Truman faced the challenging transition to a post war period, with critics lambasting his 21-point proposal to spur economic development and address social welfare issues. Although the US economy began recovering under his term, Truman was besieged by charges of corruption and serious foreign policy issues — causing his popularity to sink. Today however, historians regard Truman as one of the best presidents of the United States.

Six years is too short for a good president — but too long for a bad one. Usually the last two years is when a president can shape the legacy he wants to leave. At the end of the day, history — not surveys — will be the final judge on whether a president making the hard decisions, regardless of any criticism, ultimately had a lasting impact on his country.

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