An article from The New York Times titled “Now, a Chance to catch up to His Epochal Vision” (7 November 2012) caught my attention. Written by Jodi Kantor, the essay depicts US President Barack Obama’s quest for history, as seen from his series of private meetings with distinguished presidential historians.
Wrote Kantor: “The President was coolly eyeing American history in order to carve his own grand place in it.” Now that he has been re-elected, Obama, in the words of Robert Caro, one of the historians who attended the meetings, “has only one thing to run for: a place in history.”
Obama’s first term has been tumultuous. He could not push his reform agenda decisively because of the belligerence of reactionary ideologues in Congress, in the media, and at the grassroots, specifically the Tea Party. Hence, even the best of his interventions—universal health care, fiscal stimulus, and budget reform—had to be diluted.
Said Kantor: “Now Mr. Obama, a specialist in long shots, faces what may be the climactic challenge of his political career: a second chance to deliver the renewal he still promises, but without a clear mandate, a healthy economy or willing Republican partners.”
Kantor’s insightful essay about Obama’s eye for history has led me to ask whether our own PNoy also has that Obama vision.
Perhaps, PNoy’s perspective regarding the long run and his place in history is secondary. The question then is: Will PNoy, independent of his wish, become an epochal president? Will he secure a niche as one of the few great Philippine presidents?
The answer is yes. Of course, this will depend on what he will be doing for the rest of his term.
History is on his side. He is the son of a most-loved Cory, less popular then than sister Kris. He was an underestimated senator who had no presidential ambition. Yet he was swept to the presidency in the wake of his mom’s death, and he became the symbol of the good.
In the first half of his presidency, he continues to do good, even though his daang matuwid can be bumpy. Making Gloria Arroyo and her minions like Renato Corona accountable, reducing corruption, running after tax evaders and improving tax revenue collection, and pushing for hard legislative reforms not only satisfy short-term objectives but also solidify institutions for the long term.
Yet a much better future has to be secured. We wish to avoid what happened in our modern history—a good presidency like Cory Aquino’s was not sustained. What followed was a series of bad presidents, reaching a nadir during the term of Arroyo.
The possibility of the PNoy presidency being replaced by a less than desirable one is real. Imagine if the elections were held tomorrow. Hands down, Jejomar Binay wins. Binay professes closeness to PNoy and his family, but his coterie is made up of the forces of Gloria and Erap. This will no longer be daang matuwid.
Instead of extending daang matuwid, Binay will build grand expensive boulevards with lots of zigzags and U-turns. At best, we can expect a regime that will ignite short-run growth but characterized by corruption and rent seeking.
It’s common to hear the quip of tainted politicians, contractors, and policemen who are compelled to behave well under daang matuwid: “It’s a matter of time—happy days will be here again.”
Since we want PNoy to become an epochal president, we want him to be strategic. We want to ensure that the gains from his administration will endure beyond his presidency. That Kim Henares’s reforms in the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Butch Abad’s open government program will remain in place, regardless of who succeeds PNoy.
In this light, it is necessary, for instance, for the present Congress to pass the Freedom of Information bill. True, many government entities have become transparent under the PNoy administration. But such practice can be reversed by a future administration that prefers being opaque. Legislating freedom of information will preserve PNoy’s legacy of transparency.
Other reforms cry out to be done. With certainty though requiring a lot of vigilance, the sin tax reform will be passed. But time seems to be running out for other important measures.
What is needed is an extra push from PNoy and his allies. After all, much political capital has been spent in advancing freedom of information, reproductive health, and the rationalization of fiscal incentives.
Some might argue that the aforementioned measures can be re-introduced in the next Congress. Tactically, this is unsound. Because we want to be strategic, these reforms have to be passed at the soonest. We avoid overloading the reform agenda for the second half of PNoy’s presidency by having some of the reforms passed now.
The issues that the PNoy administration will grapple with for the second half of its term are tough. The overvaluation of the Philippine peso can only be stemmed through bold actions, requiring the collective effort of the Executive and the central bank. An energy crisis is looming, amid the increasing demand for power as economic activities grow. The intervention in the power sector requires political skills. And undoubtedly, building a reform coalition before the 2016 elections will preoccupy PNoy.
Unlike Obama who faces severe political constraints, PNoy enjoys favorable conditions to promote the hard reforms. PNoy is very popular and has the cooperation Congress. He also benefits from the bullish investors’ sentiments amid the administration’s solid economic performance.
To borrow Kantor’s words but used in a different context, “the tick of hours or days” in passing reforms like the sin tax, freedom of information, and reproductive health contributes to “the sweep of years” that will make PNoy an epochal President.