THE paradox of President Duterte is that for a man who is garrulous (loves to talk), he shows no desire to speak eloquently or memorably about his thoughts, policies and programs as president. He believes a wisecrack, an expletive or a profanity has a better chance of drawing applause than a well-crafted address.
In the three decades that I have been observing Filipino Presidents since President Marcos, DU30’s 2017 State of the Nation address (SONA) stands out as the most rambling and disjointed that I have ever heard.
As a report on his first year in the presidency, it clearly fails to speak to history. It fails his biggest accomplishments, his most ambitious undertakings, and his highest hopes for the nation.
This is manifest because the 2017 SONA consisted of 34 pages, 12,995 words, and it took DU30 more than two hours to deliver. Taken together, the prepared text and the lengthy extemporaneous remarks are a marathon.
SONA is a synthesis
I learned long ago that a SONA is essentially a synthesis of myriad elements that cohere to form a whole. It is, said a friend who was my senior, more than a work of carpentry.
The word synthesis is revealing.
First, in dialectic process, the affirmed concepts (the thesis) are countered by opposite concepts (the antithesis) to yield a final concept (the synthesis) that embraces or reconciles all acceptable concepts of the thesis and antithesis. This is how new knowledge emerges from the old knowledge.
Second, in science, synthesis is the process wherein substances combine to form completely new substances or duplicated natural products.
Finally, in natural synthesis, carbon dioxide and water are combined with the sun’s energy to produce glucose in plants (a process called photosynthesis).
The president’s annual address is, of course, not as elaborate or magical. But it is also marvelous in its own way. In terms of the priorities of a presidential administration, and its umbilical link to the hopes of a nation, the SONA is vital.
The vision of a presidency
Our Constitution mandates in Article VII, Section 23: “The President shall address the Congress at the opening the regular Congress.” There is no directive that he should report on the state of the nation. The phrase is nowhere to be found in the entire Constitution.
It was customary practice, following the recovery of national independence in 1946, that turned the annual address into the SONA, a statement on the state of the nation. And it was theatrics that turned the annual event into an extravaganza, for which everyone dressed to the nines (attired in fashionable or formal clothes).
US practice, after which our 1935 Constitution was modeled, “directed the President to give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Americans call their event SOTU (the state of the union);we Filipinos call ours SONA (the state of the nation).
William Safire, in his Political Dictionary, writes that the state of the union is preferably called a message, rather than speech, address, or report, just as the President’s inaugural speech is always formally called an address.
As a message to Congress, the SONA is nothing less than a statement of the vision of a presidency.
It is pedestrian to think that the SONA is just a laundry list of the bills or laws that the President wants Congress to pass. It is truer to say that this annual address aspires to present coherently the signal initiatives, the highest hopes, and the major policies of the administration.
Policy is shaped by articulation
The SONA, I would venture, reflects a government’s heart and soul.
There is a cautionary story about US President Jimmy Carter that he lost the presidency through his weak speechmaking. He had a proclivity to load his speeches with facts and factitious details.
According to one writer: “With his speeches preachy, disjointed and poorly delivered, Carter talked himself out of the White house in one term just as surely he had talked himself in.”
The explanation for this is that good speechmaking is an essential part of effective policymaking.
Policy should be carefully shaped through articulation.
Contemporary presidents are driven too much by opinion polling and not enough by the policy needs of the nation. They pay too much attention or listen to alleged public opinion, to the extent they do not weigh the consequences. Polls merely register what people think without having thought much, if at all, about the issue being polled.
The lesson of history is that a President should be assertive in leading public opinion, not in following it.
A clear sense of priorities
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the 2017 SONA was its failure to establish a clear sense of priorities among the many stated policies and objectives of the Duterte administration.
Various policies and proposed legislation that needed elaboration and defense were left in limbo. Talking about drugs again is not good enough. One is not encouraged by the thought that Speaker Alvarez will now be left to his own devices to decide what the House should prioritize. The record is not reassuring.
At one point of the address, President Duterte asked: “What then is the state of the nation today?
“I will mince no words and neither will I window-dress the situation [that]we are in. Let me answer in two brief sentences. We are in for trouble because we live in troubled and uncertain times. And I fear that things might get worse before they become better. But like I said I hope we will cope, we hope and pray.
Employing a similar economy of words, let us say in reply: We agree that the nation is now in a time of great uncertainty. We cannot tell today where we are really going. My biggest anxiety is that it may take another 12 months to determine where we are truly headed.