In his father’s campaign film, “Iginuhit ng Tadhana,” Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appeared as himself, to deliver his first recorded speech: “Dear friends, ladies, and gentlemen: My name is Bongbong Marcos. When I grow up, I want to be a politician. I will serve my country, especially the poor, and I will give them plenty of bigas and ulam. I will give them many many gamot at damit. And for their children, I will give them many toys so that they will not cry anymore. And for my sister, I’ll give them chocolate for the thin one, but for the fat one, no more chocolate, because she will look like Bugso. And for my mabait na lola, I’ll give her a new prayerbook because her prayerbook is already very bulok.”
Fifty-seven years after he declaimed on film, 44 years after his father became the first president to deliver a State of the Nation Address (Sona) there, Mr. Marcos delivered his first Sona, the 44th delivered in that place. Coming after six years of chaotic stream-of-consciousness speechifying by his predecessor, any Sona would have been a marvel of clear, concise communication by comparison. But it’s fair to say that the Marcos Restoration’s strength is in its speeches. The recipe remains unchanged, whether in 1965 or 2022.
Every Sona is a test of stamina for every president; in many ways, how a president delivers the speech is as, or even more, important than the contents of the speech. For Mr. Marcos, the only (surprising) false steps were, first, the momentary confusion over how to proceed to the podium after having been introduced, and second, the lapse in protocol when he acknowledged the Vice President and former presidents first: The President of the Philippines, although commanded by the Constitution to address Congress, only does so upon the invitation of Congress; he should, therefore, as per tradition, acknowledge both chambers and their leaders first, and then the rest of the audience. Other than that, this president seldom betrayed either nervousness or fatigue, stumbling more over Filipino words and only dropping the trademark Marcosian baritone occasionally during the most technocratic and thus nerve-wracking parts of the speech.
The legislators themselves seemed rather bewildered by the first part of speech, which briskly sent signals to the financial world that the administration’s perspective is that a rising tide lifts all boats. This is a point of view that can generously accommodate those who are in government to make money as well as the private sector and its enterprises, which want to be able to make money. And here, the President demonstrated yet again that his economic team and the agenda it has formulated has his full support: There will be continuity, yet adaptability; there will be prudence, but not growth-strangling austerity; there will be forward-planning in an effort to limit the tendency of legislators to play fast-and-free with the budget.
Unpleasant realities were couched in technical language: Inflation will be high until 2023, the peso will be weak (settling at 55:1 from 2023 onwards), goods and services will continue to be imported in growing volumes as the economy rebounds; fuel will continue to cost more going into 2023 before stabilizing downwards by 2024. These forecasts are going to be the basis of government policy assumptions (which the private sector can take a cue from).
Businessmen playing “Sona Bingo” (their annual practice of seeing which of their enterprises or plans are in harmony with an administration’s announced policies or specific projects) surely found the speech to their liking. The amendment of the Constitution, not through actual amendments but through the clever stratagem of merely amending legislation, opened up the economy at the tail end of the last administration and this administration will maintain the policy. While some reforms are intended for customs, the President followed it by immediately reassuring his business listeners that Customs will focus on expediting, instead of slowing down, the processing of imports. These were all parts of a piece by way of a prelude to the parts aimed at the broader public: raising funds to pay for programs. Why, even the troll farms and big players in social media are going to be finding themselves taxed. Being boosters of the administration, they are now going to be called upon to help subsidize it with a portion of their subsidies.
In many ways, the administration remains a black box, in that the composition of its brain trust is unknown. His approach to land reform is interesting, one part reward to secure military support (allocating government agricultural land to veteran or military families), another at creating an agricultural middle class by inviting agriculture graduates to be the beneficiary of government land, and securing farmer support by announcing his intention to declare a moratorium on land payments and to eventually condone land debt for land reform beneficiaries. In his section on education, the President once again sidestepped the question of the past, put forward what many in business and other sectors have been fretting over (the accelerating disappearance of the country’s traditional competitive edge in English proficiency), while being noncommittal over the question of K-to-12. The President, too, has been said to be well-informed and personally interested in renewable energy; he made this his policy (sidestepping the nuclear landmine).
This was a Sona less about the pork barrel, because with the third-highest majority in our history, there is nothing to be gained by being outside the administration circus tent at this point. And so, with only five congressmen composing the minority, and only three in the Senate minority, this is a legislature already kneeling on both knees. This means this, and not the inaugural address, is the real victory speech. It was thus more about cementing sectoral support: business, big and small, came first; soldiers, next; farmers, next; and reassurances to urban dwellers hammered by rising prices. Lawyer Ted Te said it best that as eloquent as anything any president says is what that president decides to leave out. The Sona vision is one that has no words to spare for human rights, for the peace process, for freedom of the press or free speech in general. Not least because none of these things elected this administration and steps have been taken to keep these topics under political quarantine.