PRESIDENT Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. should seek the advice and counsel of former presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. After all, they led successful presidencies, with Duterte’s satisfaction rating, based on a June 26 to 29, 2022 poll by the Social Weather Station at 88 percent, the highest ever recorded by the pollster.
Arroyo’s ratings were low, but as I have argued in several columns, and provided empirical data for, this was due to the massive black propaganda undertaken against her, as it was the Yellows’ last chance to regain power and what was at stake was Hacienda Luisita. A bad economy, even if caused by global developments as it was during Arroyo’s term, always pulls down a president’s popularity.
The proof of the pudding though is in the eating, and Arroyo, even with her weak political base, undertook unpopular tax reforms and a comprehensive program to address the global economic crisis from 2008 to 2009. It was Arroyo’s economic management that was responsible for the robust economy during her successor Benigno Aquino 3rd’s term.
With their track record, it is a mystery to me why Marcos doesn’t seek their counsel, especially since after four months, his presidency seems to be adrift, or even stalling.
Marcos, in fact, is an extremely lucky president. After Fidel Ramos, he is just the second of seven post-EDSA presidents who was backed by his predecessor, in this case Duterte. Duterte’s predecessor, Aquino 3rd, didn’t support him. Aquino 3rd’s predecessor, Arroyo didn’t. Arroyo, of course, helped topple her predecessor, Estrada.
This should have meant he has access to the experience and wisdom of two successful presidents. I wonder why he refused to access these, especially as he really owes much of his victory to these two who threw in their support for him.
Ship of state
The counsel of past Philippine presidents is inarguably priceless as there is no school for running the ship of state. The Philippine government especially is a huge bureaucracy of over 1 million employees, a fourth of which I estimate are unproductive or corrupt. In the US, there are laws requiring a smooth transition (with $100 million in federal funds allocated to this process) from one president to another, so lessons from one administration are transmitted to the next.
There is even a law requiring presidents to submit to the National Archives all of the documents produced by the presidency. This helps a succeeding presidency to go through the past records to find out why and how this program succeeded, why and how that failed. Marcos has even amazingly worsened this organizational amnesia by ordering all appointees of his predecessor fired immediately on his first days in office. (After its disastrous consequences — the bureaucracy of course practically froze — that order was rescinded.)
In our case, each president starts as if he had no predecessor, except for the constitutional provisions and the General Administrative Code that specifies the structure of the Cabinet and the departments.
I am not exaggerating when I point out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which occurred even before the world economy had recovered from the debilitating effects of Covid-19, our own Covid-caused fiscal quagmire, and US monetary and fiscal policies that led to steep appreciations of the dollar (raising our import costs) have created a crisis that is as bad or even worse than the 2008 to 2009 global recession.
Council of State
These developments and especially the possibility or probability of a nuclear war should have already driven this presidency to convene a “Council of State” (as Fidel Ramos and Arroyo had done) consisting of past presidents, the heads of the Congress, and leaders of the opposition to get their views and recommendations on how to deal with the crisis at hand.
Marcos hasn’t even talked one-on-one with Duterte or Arroyo to seek their advice on various issues and crisis facing his presidency. Events like cutting the ribbon in ho-hum property projects, watching an Eric Clapton concert, and watching the Formula 1 race in Singapore seem to consume more of his time.
What’s wrong with him? He wants to prove he can do it without the help of anybody? Just as he thinks it is only he who can lead the Agriculture department and make it a super-efficient bureaucracy — even if he hasn’t the experience of running such a large department nor the expertise in agriculture?
From Duterte, I can imagine the following advice.
Have a chief of staff (COS) you can trust with your life, who knows how you think and can strike the fear of the Lord in your people. While his title was special assistant to the president, now senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go was actually Duterte’s chief of staff, and Go’s own staff was the very competent Presidential Management Staff. Marcos let go of a golden opportunity when he didn’t push through with the plan to appoint Victor Rodriguez as COS, a position that appears to have rankled certain people close to him who want to have his full attention.
Now, who does Marcos turn to, say, to give him an objective assessment if, for instance, that the Gokongwei firm deserved to be given a three-year tariff protection for their plastic raw material, to the detriment of consumers? To Special Assistant to the President Antonio Lagdameo Jr., grandson of the banana king and husband of actress Dawn Zulueta?
In Duterte’s case, he would have passed the work to Go, who would get the PMS to do a comprehensive study of the issue first for Duterte’s guidance. Arroyo had a chief of staff (but not for her entire term), and I held that job for a while so I know what I am talking about.
The lack of a presidential chief of staff could even cost lives. Aquino 3rd didn’t, which partly explains the Mamasapano Massacre of 44 Special Action Forces in 2015. The operation was only known between Aquino, suspended Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima and the Special Action Forces commander Getulio Napeñas.
When the SAF forces were pinned down by Muslim terrorists, Aquino didn’t have a trusted chief of staff who would have been included in the loop, who had the authority over the bureaucracy to handle the crisis. Aquino froze, spending almost the whole day pretending to inspect the typhoon damage in Zamboanga City while Muslim terrorist snipers shot the SAF fighters one by one.
During the terms of most past presidents, the executive secretary doubled as chief of staff, to which these presidents first threw their myriad “how-do-you-deal-with-this” memos, and their “gawaan-mo-ng-paraan” orders.
Some of these who certainly deserved the “Little President” monicker were Rafael Salas and Alejandro Melchor (Marcos Sr.), Joker Arroyo and Franklin Drilon (Cory Aquino), Ronaldo Zamora (Estrada), Alberto Romulo and Eduardo Ermita (Arroyo), and Salvador Medialdea (Duterte).
Comparing past executive secretaries with the current one, Lucas Bersamin, a former chief justice, is a round peg in a square hole, an indication that Marcos hasn’t got the skill of choosing the right people for the right position.
Most of Bersamin’s working life was spent sitting in a judge’s sala and in his chamber reading tons and tons of legal documents. If you look at the background of past executive secretaries, these were not legal people but politically astute stand-ins for the president. Their job was, to use that Game of Thrones term, as the wily King’s Hand, not the scholarly Maester, which Bersamin is.
But this stuff about the chief of staff is just another of the many lessons Duterte and GMA could teach Marcos Jr. to run the government successfully if only he would listen. And time of course is of the essence.