The Long View
Three aspects of the presidency
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:26:00 01/10/2010
LISTENING to last Saturday’s Presidential forum in De La Salle Zobel, where Benigno Aquino III, Richard Gordon, Gilbert Teodoro and Manuel Villar Jr. answered a series of punchy questions expertly presented by Mike Enriquez, something Dr. Jose Abueva told me kept coming back to my mind.
If we assume that the presidency as an office is molded as much by the personalities and vision of individuals, as it is by the rules imposed by the Constitution and tradition, then pondering the answers given by the candidates requires an insight into the potential that acquiring presidential office represents not just for the candidates but the country.
Dr. Abueva points to three aspects – three potentials – of the presidency, that we should bear in mind. Several years ago, in our book on Malacanang Palace, I described it as “prize, pulpit and stage”: a prize, as power is contested and fought for, symbolized by a new administration moving in; a pulpit, because of the manner in which presidents can nudge public opinion toward great goals and national ideals; and a stage, because it’s where the panoply of governance plays out.
Abueva adopts a similar perspective.
First, a president, he says, can be “A Great Teacher.” By personal example and the manner in which he wields the powers of the office, a president can demonstrate leadership and not just undertake management of the executive branch. There is a deep difference between the two, and the public ideally has to identify the candidate who can lead, while being able to create a team that can manage things well.
Much has been made of Barack Obama’s enthusiasm for the book “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of how Abraham Lincoln turned a divided cabinet composed of strong personalities with ideas not only very different from his own, but skeptical of his character and abilities, into a team that ended up loyally serving him and whose members became his admirers.
He did this knowing the encumbrances of the job. Lincoln famously remarked, concerning the legions of politicians besieging presidents for the pork barrel and patronage, that his daily dilemma was “too many piglets, too few teats.” And yet even as patronage was par for the course for any political job, it didn’t dominate his presidency or his subordinates’ or the public’s perception of how he viewed his office and wielded his office.
Second, a president can be a “A Great Nation-Builder.” This involves strengthening and not weakening institutions. It requires the vision and understanding required to foster and nurture the rank and file in the bureaucracy so that what is the citizenry’s due – services, programs – are provided not as favors but as the taxpayer’s due. Garry Wills in his book on the Kennedys contrasted Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, with John F. Kennedy. FDR, he argued, was a true leader because he used his personal charisma and executive authority to create bureaucratic institutions that transformed people’s lives long after he left office. JFK, on the other hand, he criticized because he viewed the bureaucracy as the enemy, to be circumvented, sidestepped and confronted (to be subdued), which eroded institutions.
And finally, the president can be “A Great Transforming Leader,” meaning someone who upholds and promotes the nation’s positive values and high ideals of governance. A president must get subordinates and even rivals to change their methods and behavior.
At last Saturday’s presidential forum in De La Salle Zobel, candidate Benigno Aquino III recounted how the passage of the 2010 budget made his blood boil, because bureaucrats didn’t even pretend to consider the opinions of legislators. Never, he said, has he seen such a mentality of impunity among officials serving the chief executive. This is a clear demonstration, he argued, of how contempt of institutions at the top ends up parroted by those below; conversely it suggests how the bureaucracy can be galvanized by a change in orientation at the top.
I’ve heard that the President, through the Department of the Interior, has taken to reassigning provincial police commanders, even if they’re supposed to enjoy something of a fixed term; the reshuffle comes on the eve of the 2010 polls and is being perceived as a partisan undertaking. The President enjoys the broad power of supervision, meaning she has oversight over all local government units in a government that is by its nature, unitary and so, highly centralized. Everyone knows the limits that are supposed to apply to her power of supervision; and everyone knows how she has and continues to abuse her powers; it remains for the public to determine whether candidates have pointed out these shortcomings enough and pledged to demonstrate how different he will be compared to her.
Sen. Francis Escudero, for example, likes pointing out that the President of the Philippines has the power to appoint several thousand officials, up and down the bureaucratic line, and the power to create agencies as he sees fit, besides merging and consolidating them as required, under the Administrative Code. A president cast in a pragmatic mode will make neither excellence nor competence or even integrity the gold standard for appointments.
In that sense, character is paramount: a president who recognizes no limits, or for whom everything is negotiable, cannot become a teacher, nation-builder, or transformative leader. In that sense, too, past accomplishments require greater scrutiny, for they have to be understood in terms of whether or not these accomplishments were accompanied by demonstrations of character, of integrity, by the leader; and whether the leader turned achievement into teaching moments for subordinates and peers; and whether these accomplishments contributed to nation-building or merely personal, political or financial advantage.