The ‘I’ of the President

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

The President said it in no uncertain terms.

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“I announce my separation from the United States both in the military, but economics [terms]also.”

But when pressed on whether he would allow for joint ventures and explorations in the West Philippine Sea with China, the President responded:

“This has to be with the consent of Congress and everybody, every Filipino involved. At this time, I am not empowered to do that.”

Yet, traditional media screamed with headlines that the President has boldly abandoned our ties with the United States, and pivoted toward China in complete disregard of our treaty obligations with the former. The anti-Duterte and/or pro-American social media followed this up with posts condemning the President’s stance as irresponsible and ill-advised. Some even sounded so cataclysmic as if it is the end of days.

They miss the point that what we have is a President who is fully aware of his prerogatives as Chief Executive even as he is conscious of the limits to such power.

This is because his critics continue to judge him on the basis of the usual rubrics. They expect the President to have a fixed template from where he draws his narratives, and such should possess definite and unequivocal meaning.

They keep on misunderstanding the first person “I” in the President’s universe of meanings.

The problem is rooted in the manner political science has constructed the occupant of the Ofice of the President as one whose speech is automatically coded as public policy. Modern liberal democratic theory has denied one who is President the right to autonomy. The “I” in every President becomes subordinated to the “we” of the sovereign people. This leads to the irony that one who is so elevated in the realm of state politics ends up so objectified in the domain of identity politics. This leads to a situation where any President is now denied entitlement to an opinion, or even the freedom to express his emotions, for everything he says, every curse he makes, every frown on his face, takes a public meaning and is bound to be taken as expressions of public policy.

No wonder it is said by many that a position of public power like that of the President is also a position of private loneliness. Presidents are expected to follow protocols, acquire a new speech pattern, even a new vocabulary, and read prepared speeches in front of cameras, things that may not be their own but one crafted by their advisers and consultants. Even their family lives do not escape public gaze and expectations. And the only time they get to be themselves is when they are alone.

Thus, in this context, the “I” no longer becomes them but is now forcibly equated to be that of the Republic.

This is a box in which President Duterte appears to resist confinement. After all, he was a local public official for most of his entire career, only interrupted by a short stint in Congress. He is more known for being organically rooted and raw. His “I” is one that speaks loudly as one comfortable with himself, one that celebrates his identity.

He is recalcitrant and slippery, refusing to be subjected to the usual expectations. He asserts his “I” as his own, even as he is cognizant of the fact that he is just one player, albeit the most powerful, in the public sphere that is the affairs of the Republic.

And this is nowhere more illustrated than in his pattern of speech vis-à-vis US and China. He is aware of his prerogatives as Chief Executive and that he has power over executive agreements, such as bilateral trade in economic and military goods. That was the “I” who spoke of separation from the US.

However, he is cognizant of the power of Congress to ratify treaties, and to abrogate these, and to approve agreements that involve national sovereignty. This is the “I” of the President who deferred to Congress on the issue of joint ventures with China in the West Philippine Sea. And this is the “I” that should douse the fears of those who think that the Philippines will cede our sovereignty to China and sever our ties with the US. The President’s “I” who separated from the US is also the same “I” who knows he is bound by our treaty agreements with it.

In the end, the President is a beautiful reminder for everyone to go beyond words and look into meanings and context. He challenges all of us, especially journalists and social media denizens, to get out of our usual lenses, move out of our comfort zones and begin looking at the President as the “I” we will never own, and could never appropriate in our headlines, posts, tweets and biases the way we want him to be.

And had we been more discerning of that “I,” we would have known that separation and severance are, indeed, differently nuanced.

antonio.contreras@manilatimes.net

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23 Comments

  1. President Duterte has said, many times already, that when uses “I” that it means its his own personal opinion and not necessarily the official State position.

  2. nakasanayan na kasi natin lahat na de cuadro ang kilos at salita ng ating pangulo.
    whatever they say about duterte, i can only judge him from what he does and not from what he says. for i think, so far he’s the only one who has genuine concern for all of us.

  3. Very enlightening Sir. Thank you for sharing your objective and intelligent thoughts on this subject. I hope the people are also enlightened by this article. We need more writing like this as many Journalists which we now call Presstitutes are extremely biased against the President & China and Russia for that matter.

  4. The “I” is inextricably intertwined with the “We” no matter how you cut it. To dichotomize is clever but pointless. Anyway, what Digong actually meant by separation, is independence from America. He is ending decades of servility to Uncle Sam’s interests as it is clear our interests do not always run parallel to those of this western hegemon. Only the pathetic BROWN AMERICANS refuse to understand that. Its about time we INDIOS tracked our own course. To pray for Duterte is to pray for the people.

    • Very poor point of view,

      First, the government try to negotiate with rebels of cor’s you cannot negotiatiate properly if your throwing shit word to them so you need to be nice. That the way I look at it.

      Second, when the rebels refuse to compromise and beheaded the canadian hostages that’s the time they said and the president ordered to kill them?

      Are you reading or watching news. Do a proper research first before you provide a comment.

  5. Nice use of creative imagination Prof. This is now a total departure from the conventional wisdom that when a president or head of state speaks and referring to “I” in a foreign venue and even in the context of foreign policy does not mean “we”. That there is a dichotomy of personal and national even without clear qualification. Majority of experts in the world did not know that what he said in China was a personal statement or opinion and not a foreign policy. Wow! So when he said it’s now the Philippines, China and Russia against the world. It was also a personal opinion? He therefore shoul have used “I” because when he said the Philippines. I am sure it’s “we”. So why was he in China? Because it was a personal trip or on an official capacity as head of state? In this case, anything you say even with an “I” is a “we” unless qualified because you represent “us”. We have to admit that Duterte is a “poor communicator” because if he were, few of what he said needs clarification. And people like you do not need to interpret it. Prof Contreras, you are a political scientist, not a foreign policy expert. That being said, yours remain just as an opinion which needs to be respected. But the much greater and brighter minds than you says otherwise. Pero I must admit, nice try sa palusot mo. But I think we should give higher value to what the Dean of Graduate Law of San Beda (who is a more credible expert than you) who called the Duterte move as “dangerous” flip flopping. Pakinggan mo kaya yung interview nya kay Failon and you debunk him.

    • Very wel said
      But from a ass Kissing professor you can expect It
      Look his remakes about communnism
      And he calls him self a professor
      Here Perhaps yes in Harvard or eton he was a student

  6. Victoria Arches on

    We choose a leader whose “I” represent our aspirations, thoughts, or stand on issues. For many who are yet ambivalent on approach, we choose one to decide for us. If a leader were to be representative of all opinions, we might as well choose a collegial body who takes consensus always before acting on or saying anything, and that will be painstakingly slow, resulting in little or no progress.

  7. He is Just populist
    Saying What the people want to hear,
    Its a majority They did not learn to think

  8. He is Just populist
    Saying What the people want to hear,
    Its a majority They did not learn to think

    • Duterte has done more to improve the lives of the Filipino people in their first 100 days in office than what PNoy Aquino and his liberal party cronies accomplished in 6 years!

    • It’s called spin.

      Spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion.

      Redressing what the president said to the point that it doesn’t mean what he said is what the author does.

    • @Jessie Corrales

      You must judge by some other criteria other than what someone is telling you or a group.

      Is you’re judgement based on a relationship to the author or is you’re myopic view based on the job they hold ?

      Apparently anyone who offers a opinion different from a kool-aid drinking sycophant such as yourself must be a yellow.

      “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves”
      Welcome to the herd Jessie

    • Did your idol PNoy Aquino improve the service of the MRT and the traffic situation in Metro Manila?

  9. I am impressed Professor Contreras on your analytical articles. Always looking forward to read them. I first heard your objective analytical comments on Karambola.

    More power,

    Josefina