The description of a nation as a vessel on a course can be traced in English to 1675 and can be found in ancient Greek poetry. Lincoln liked and used the metaphor.
The question is not whether Aquino’s ship is sinking, but how long it can stay afloat.
The iceberg of reality that has bored a hole in Aquino’s vessel is super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). It is paired by other icebergs – the pork barrel scam and the imminent Supreme Court decision on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).
Against the ferocity and power of the perfect storm, BS Aquino 3rd and his administration are hopelessly overmatched. Aquino now confronts in the mirror and in the faces of the Filipino people the extent of his incompetence and utter lack of empathy with people in distress.
Words for infamy and history
Nothing crystallizes this more vividly than the words “’Di ka namatay, ‘di ba?” (You did not die, right?), which he said to one Leyteño resident and businessman who was appealing for presidential action to stem the tide of desperation and rising lawlessness in Tacloban City, the area hit hardest by the typhoon.
When he uttered those words, he meant only to be his usual acid-tongued, wise-guy self, averse to suggestions on what he should do and sensitive to criticism. Little did he know that his words and his name were about to live in infamy and history.
Long after the fury and tragedy of Yolanda will have receded in national memory, “’Di ka namatay, ‘di ba?” will be memorialized in history and popular literature in the same way that “Let them eat cake” was sealed in history as the utterance of Queen Marie Antoinette of France.
The two statements are equally memorable and piercing because each betrays an appalling lack of empathy with people in distress, and a hint of disdain.
There is a difference, however. Aquino cannot escape responsibility for the words, because he was recorded on tape by one broadcast network and there were many witnesses. In contrast, there is no record of Queen Marie ever uttering, “Let them eat cake.” It appears only in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, his autobiography which was written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was nine years of age.
Imagine for a moment if immediately after the namatay statement was reported in the media, Aquino had gone public to deny it. If instead of haughtily standing his ground, he acknowledged the lapse and imitated a famous Hollywood PR comeback and said: “I committed a mistake in saying that. I am the king of mistakes. I’m sorry.”
This way, he would have offered “king of mistakes” as a substitute for the “Pork Barrel King” label he detests. He would have looked more human and vulnerable.
But, as Andy del Rosario has noted in his Manila Standard column, “Sorry does not exist in President Aquino’s vocabulary.”
At heart, this is Aquino’s major character flaw—that he can never can own up to making a mistake, that he believes himself blameless in everything that has gone wrong during his watch, including the tragic Luneta hostage-taking incident.
The mirror attribute to his sense of blamelessness is his pugnacity, his cultivated pose of spoiling for a fight. But the public instinctively knows that much of Aquino’s pugnacity is just a pose, like his posturing during the Zamboanga City standoff as commander-in-chief.
The public sees a man who physically cannot stand toe to toe with anyone. The only public figure who’s physically weaker than him is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is tied to a hospital bed.
Privately, administration lieutenants concede that the President has reached a low point in his public standing. But they try to project assurance and confidence.
The situation would be different if there were a clear opposition to contrast with Aquino. But his vindictiveness and scorched-earth tactics (deploying all powers at his command) against political opponents have stunted and scuttled the opposition UNA has been reduced to a shadow. Vice President Jejomar Binay is hesitant to project himself as the clear alternative to the president. Former President Estrada is totally absorbed by the challenge of resuscitating Manila. Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile who once thundered at President Cory, “Stop playing God,” has been hobbled by the pork-barrel scandal and dazed by the lunacy of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago.
So Aquino must face the music alone, with no rival to give him a high-noon showdown. It is a danger zone where the public could stop trusting and listening to him. The message he rode to power—tuwid na daan and kung walang korap walang mahirap—has turned out to be a fraud.
The only thing keeping Aquino’s ship from totally sinking as fast as the real Titanic, is the fact that Congress, both houses, is as unpopular as the President. The administration gets more blame for the anemic government response to Yolanda. But public anger against Congress because of the pork barrel scandal is just as sharp.
It is as if the public has put a pox on both branches. All officials would be fired if the people were to decide.
Point of no return
Aquino is closing in on what political scientists call “the point of no return.” This point is that moment when a president’s plans are overwhelmed by his problems, and he’s relegated to playing defense for the rest of his term. Aquino’s agenda—the election of a chosen successor in 2016 already lingers near death. Mar Roxas is nearly as unpopular and distrusted as the president.
Without doubt, Yolanda will be the issue in the final years of Aquino’s presidency. Years on defense—increasingly impotent years—will characterize the balance of his term.
Just as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo got stuck on the defensive in the final years of her presidency, defending herself against relentless allegations of corruption. So President Aquino is now facing charges of incompetence, abuse of power. And corruption.
Malacañang is trying desperately to change the political narrative by announcing the appointment of former senator Lacson as rehabilitation czar of the typhoon-ravaged areas, and shuffling the people at the communications group, the need for narrative change was the reason he made a state visit to Korea the day after the massive Bohol earthquake. This is also the reason he is now on a visit to Japan—to attend the Asean-Japan summit, and for bilateral talks with Japanese Prime Minister Abe.
If these narrative shifts do not work, Aquino might try saber rattling against China.
Poor statecraft has made the nation look more confused and chaotic to the world.
The fundamental problems of presidential insensitivity and incompetence have never been really addressed.
Aquino’s last stand is apparently to prosecute the pork barrel cases against political opponents as far as they will lead. But the finger also points to him because his pork barrel is infinitely bigger, and probably just as illegal.
President Aquino is going to defend the DAP to the end. He has dispatched Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno to lobby the other justices for a favorable high court verdict on DAP. He has encouraged the House to threaten SC justices with impeachment in order to manufacture an administration-friendly majority in the High Court.
But his case looks weak. The best legal minds in the country have decried the unconstitutionality of the DAP. Claims that DAP accelerated economic growth are dismissed as a lie.
If the administration loses the fight over DAP, Aquino is roast duck. His ship will be doomed. Officers and crew will bail out.
Many are eagerly awaiting the time when President Aquino will leave Malacañang. That’s a long two years seven months and 25 days away. But the countdown has begun, and it is for many the source of greatest hope.