Column: Noy’s “comfort zone”

A “psychological” reading of the second President Aquino, published on October 25, 2010.

Consider this a belated meditation on President Aquino’s first 100 days in office.

I was one of those who applauded his decision to immerse himself in prayer, before throwing his hat into the presidential ring. It seemed to me that he was not only doing the right thing; by going on retreat in Zamboanga City, under the spiritual direction of a nun who was close both to his mother and to him, he was doing the characteristic thing. That is to say, the retreat was character-revealing.

The idea, if I understood it right, was not so much to help make up his mind, but to validate a difficult decision already reached. To use a telling word he had used to describe his decision-making process in those early days (only a little over a year ago), he needed to “internalize” the decision. That he felt he needed to do it, essentially to create a space in the middle of that truly rare phenomenon, the
chaos of a genuine presidential draft, in order to be still, seemed to reveal a
principal aspect of his personality.

He has a strong sense of self. Or, alternatively, we can use another concept from psychology and say: He has, and lives inside, a well-defined comfort zone. In definitions I’ve seen, this behavior is characterized by at least three conditions: it’s anxiety-free, it allows the person to perform at a certain consistent level, and it usually carries very little sense of risk. The sense of limits, of boundaries, is very
strong, may indeed be defining.

By using this concept of the comfort zone, I do not mean to suggest that President Aquino does not take political risks, or does not risk politically unpopular positions. He had a cozy accommodation as one of the deputy speakers of the House of Representatives (what, in truth, does a deputy speaker do?); he put it on the line when he came out strongly to criticize President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo starting in 2005. His first hundred days in Malacañang may well be defined in tomorrow’s history books as the posing of a deliberate, decisive challenge to a packed Supreme Court (despite depending on two lawyers, his executive secretary
and his presidential legal counsel, who do not enjoy a reputation for luminous
acumen in the legal profession). He soft-pedalled his stance on the entire
vexing issue of reproductive health and population growth during the election,
but afterwards went back to his original position, despite vigorous opposition
from vocal Catholic bishops.

As far as the give-and-take of politics is concerned, the President seems to have a considerably expansive comfort zone, indeed (and to change metaphors) even an appetite, for staking contentious positions. As I had occasion to write during the campaign season, President Aquino may be more hard-line on certain issues than his record, or his mother’s reputation, suggests.

It is when we come to the question of governance that the concept of the comfort zone, the sense of limitations that it presumes, becomes interesting. Like many, I have no patience with former senator Ernesto Maceda’s snide view of President Aquino’s working habits; Maceda did not only serve in the administration of the only work-averse president in our country’s history, he ran Joseph Estrada’s second presidential run. He is not exactly a credible source on presidential work
discipline. So I don’t have a problem with the President starting his working
day late, as Maceda (among others) has written; I have a problem with the
President abbreviating his working hours, which does not yet seem to be the
case.

But it is the matter of staff choice that seems to me to reveal, or betray, Mr. Aquino’s comfort zone. No one has ever said filling thousands of positions is easy; but that’s what search committees are for. The President’s sluggish pace in making appointments is worrying, because of what it says not so much about his sense of urgency but his ability to trust people he doesn’t know all that well. (There’s that third condition, of little or no risk.)

Conversely, many of the real (not merely partisan) problems that have affected the Aquino administration in its first hundred days may be attributed to the
President’s excessive dependence on people he has learned to trust. (There’s
that second condition of performance consistency—regardless of the level of
performance.)

Randy David has already written about the deeper meaning of the retention of Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno, whose intimate friendship with the President is his main recommendation for the position. This new cronyism is also reflected in the President’s over-reliance on another close friend, Executive Secretary Jojo
Ochoa. Father Joaquin Bernas has pointed out that it was well within the
President’s prerogative to have Ochoa and Presidential Legal Counsel Ed de Mesa
review the work of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee led by
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. Yes, but I subscribe to the view, held by not
a few, that that unexpected review was the President’s way of limiting the
liability of friends implicated in the August 23 tragedy, including Puno and
Manila Mayor Fred Lim.

The explosive PCIJ story on the report suggests the real limits of the President’s comfort zone.

* * *

I am looking for a copy of the “Noli Me Tangere” translated, I think in 1905, by E. M. Gross. If a reader can point me in the right direction, I would really appreciate it. And please allow me to repeat: I’ve changed my number. If you have my old one, please change the prefix to 0917, change the next three numbers to 571, then retain
the last four digits.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Rizal

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