Near the end of the last administration, I came to believe, and still believe, that one of its mantras — “Kayo ang Boss ko” — was actually secretly hated by the public, since it is the same one which cringes in the face of power, only to badmouth it when its back is turned, and which reserves a particularly virulent contempt for the powerful who act weak. The language of civil society may please the dwindling, increasingly white-haired survivors of the anti-Marcos struggle but for the rest, it grates on the nerves. In the end, I do not think that the public’s expectations of the presidency have changed in three generations.
Carlos P. Romulo, who holds the lifetime achievement award in remaining useful to the most number of powerful people in one lifetime, boiled it down to this: The Filipino concept of leadership is to have someone decide things for the people. So long as the basic parameters aren’t stretched to the breaking point — exceeding powers or committing improprieties — the leader is safe. It was in keeping with this basic, enduring insight into our national psychology that the President, then still a mayor aspiring for the presidency, won, hands down, one presidential debate when he simply said, “The solution to the problems of this country is leadership.”
It is not the President’s fault — but surely, an enjoyable side effect — that the educated who report, analyze, and comment on his exercise of leadership have, sooner or later, either overanalyzed and thus attributed more thinking, skill, and subtlety, more vision, even, to what he’s done, or, on the other hand, taken him too literally at his word when neither he nor — more significantly — the majority of the people have ever put much value on those words as more than wordplay to suit the emotions or circumstances of the moment.
He hasn’t been inconsistent when one considers the statements he’s made time and again. First, he doesn’t like America, and he has a CIA story to explain why. Second, he doesn’t like American methods, over and above that, and his simple explanation is in meetings Americans give you coffee and a donut, while the Chinese, on the other hand, lay out a lauriat. The third is related to the first two, which is Americans are patronizing, the Chinese are respectful (there is an unnoticed third person — Japan — the only country, by the way, able to put a fight for the President’s affections). Fourth, the simple calculation that America is a power in decline, China is a power on the rise, and the Philippines might as well shift its affections from America to China.
So many trees uselessly gave up their lives to print the thoughts of those who tried to portray this simple series of conclusions as a kind of new, daring, or at least cunning, kind of brinkmanship, playing off America versus China when all that happened was it played off the head of the executive branch versus his subordinates, who tried to prevent the President’s policy from irreversibly harming relations with the United States while the President, from time to time, simply intervened to remind everyone that he called the foreign policy shots.
He has done this again, not only disowning his Secretary of Foreign Affairs’ words but instructing his alter ego to apologize to the Chinese ambassador. Again it can be argued that the foreign ministries of the world, the President, and Beijing, know what’s what and that the President’s policy has not changed in any fundamental way since he assumed office, though it’s equally true to say the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Defense both have tried to wriggle their way into moderating this policy. But for the next year, at least, the fact remains who’s boss—and where he’s decisively placed his bets.
The monuments of this administration will forever be two bridges donated by China; its mark on the pandemic will be defined by the Sinovac vaccine (though why the President, who recently received his second, and not first, Sinopharm vaccine, as some observers have concluded, was advised by his doctors to receive the other vaccine is a story we will never know); the only limit on official Chinese influence on every level of our politics is, ironically, due to the one area in which the President demonstrated true independence from Beijing: continuing the coddling of Pogos even after China applied heavy pressure for our government to persecute them (we did not comply, as Cambodia complied; it’s the pandemic that eventually drove the Pogos out, but you can bet they’d be welcomed back again).