The President gave the nation an excuse slip
In his inaugural address, just four months ago, the President said, “I will not predicate my promise to you on your cooperation. You have your own lives to live, your work to do—and there too I will help. Government will get as much done alone without requiring more from you. That is what government and public officials are for. No excuses; just deliver. It was like that, once upon a time. [Cheers]”
It is the particular genius of this administration that it harnessed the power of nostalgia to propel itself back to power. Genius because it seized on a particular kind of nostalgia not based on actual, selective, memory (since our population is so overwhelmingly young), but rather, a derived, implanted, nostalgia. That old pedant Ferdinand Marcos Sr. of the good grades and photographic memory once tried to master history. His son seized on the easier and more satisfying because essentially undebatable solution of simply trying to tell a more crowd-pleasing story.
Hence, “once upon a time,” which means those looking for the telltale signs of history will forever be frustrated. Consider what to me is the most puzzling part of our recent typhoon experience. It wasn’t the bureaucracy, including its politically appointed leadership. From the Cabinet on down, they acted true to form. They put on vests emblazoned with the logos and initials of their respective agencies and went ahead and did the things they’re supposed to do, while the component parts of what passes for the communications infrastructure of the government did their part too, including itemizing “presidential directives.” Taken as read, the various agencies including the communication agencies of the government itemized plenty of goings-on.
Neither was it the President. Our presidents don’t seem to have quite figured out how to dress down to show they’re in emergency mode: some wear jackets, others settle for polo shirts. What is universally considered central is that chief executives should be seen. And they should be seen presiding, then instructing, followed by their being seen to be inspecting. In times of calamity, all the chatter boils down to two questions all our recent presidents are interrogated on: do they know what they are doing, and are they doing enough? If there is a deficiency in either of the two, could it be because they don’t care?
So the President’s behavior wasn’t puzzling, either. He presided. He instructed. He inspected. That the President decided to preside over the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council conference via teleconferencing, instead of doing so in person, was different. The relative informality of his location was curious, to the extent that government found it difficult to simply state where he was and why he decided to preside remotely. So aside from scrutinizing the questions he asked and the comments he made, his very location, down to the kind of electrical outlets seen behind him, ended up dissected online for what it might possibly reveal. The President himself seemed to think he put the peanut gallery in its place by offhandedly scoffing, “Welcome to Hokkaido” when he finally interacted with the press. No one in his official family can do anything about that because there is no designated point person able to backstop the President and serve as the focal point—the chief storyteller—of his administration. The acting press secretary tried. But the agency she (temporarily) presides over is in flux. The acting executive secretary is too old. The acting secretary of social welfare and development could be the one, except he himself is still learning the ropes.
What is puzzling to me is how scarce the First Lady and her children have been. The presidency is a package deal. The Marcoses in their pre-1986 heyday, harkening back to their predecessors, knew family solidarity was expected during times of calamity: the president thus assumed the role of field marshal of operations, while the first lady provided empathy and compassion; even the children were drafted to prove they were both dutiful and useful, whether rolling bandages or packing relief goods. The First Family is fortunate that it’s been two decades since we had a first lady, so both memory and expectations of that informal office are pretty much extinct: We saw the First Lady at the MassKara Festival, and donning a witch’s hat at a Palace Halloween children’s party.
But these are all questions of executive style. Just because you lived through it once doesn’t seem to mean you internalized it going into the second time around. What upset me more is the latest manifestation of a phenomenon that became apparent after President Marcos Jr. won last June. It’s of those formerly committed to change, who have changed by announcing they are no longer committed to the common good because the common people turned their back on the chance for good governance and servant leadership. Let the people, this thinking goes, ask the Marcoses the next time they need help. In this calamity, what I found remarkable was there seemed less enthusiasm to help.
Those of a kinder, more understanding disposition have suggested that, instead, there is “donor fatigue” on the part of the middle class normally so active online in self-organizing to extend relief. High inflation, the toll the pandemic has taken on SMEs and even big corporations must account for some, if not most, of the apparent moderation in enthusiasm to help. This may be so.
While perhaps an emotionally understandable attitude on the part of those who have only now experienced the anguish and disappointment of a losing campaign, it’s still wrong. Concern for fellow citizens might be conditional in some respects—you can only give what you have, to the extent you are able—but compassion in times of calamity cannot and should not be predicated on whether the public was like-minded in the last election. “Let’s see what the Tallano gold can buy you now,” or “If you need help, ask the ones with intelligence funds” is a malicious response none of our fellow citizens deserve.
The President and his people could have made a devastating response to criticisms by seizing on this freely expressed change of heart among some of his critics. Except his own assumption of power marked a return to a more passive relationship with the authorities when it comes to unexpected events: the President himself has given the nation a free pass on civic engagement.