Column: Mr. Aquino’s comfort-zone presidency

Published on November 11, 2014.

Shortly after President Aquino marked his 100th day in office, in 2010, I wrote a column attempting an analysis of the new commander in chief’s self-evidently well-defined sense of limits. The unfortunate controversy over his decision to omit Tacloban City from his packed schedule commemorating the first anniversary of “Yolanda” over the weekend reminded me of that attempt; perhaps (if you will allow me) it bears a second look.

Some excerpts:

“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 …. 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 …. 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.)”

Fast forward to last Friday, when the President raised the astonishing question: “Can anybody claim that we were the worst hit?” By Yolanda, that is. It was a remarkable rhetorical question, designed to prove that there was no need for the President of the Philippines to be in Tacloban on the anniversary itself—remarkable because in fact the answer is not No, as he suggested, but Yes. As yesterday’s editorial phrased it: “by the two most familiar, most frequently used measures, only Tacloban can make that claim: the most number of dead, the biggest damage to infrastructure.”

But somehow the President convinced himself that he did not need to be in Tacloban on the day the world observed Yolanda’s first anniversary. (I will assume that members of his inner circle tried to persuade him to visit Tacloban, because that was the reasonable thing to do.) His decision may have something to do with this limiting sense of a comfort zone; Tacloban, for political and other reasons, had become a source of anxiety (see the first condition).

I realize this is mind-reading, of a sort, but the President’s character has been under the microscope for the last four years. Surely we can “read” him, in this sense.

He does it himself. Case in point: President Aquino declined to visit the wake of murdered transgender Jennifer Laude not because it would hurt Philippine-American relations, but because, “You know, in general, I don’t attend wakes of people I don’t know.”

For a politician, the President has “reluctant” written all over him, and this was obvious in his explanation. Saying he was “not comfortable” condoling with people who did not know him, he asked, “How can I say that I really sympathize with their loss and have some relevant discussion with them on trying to assuage … their loss at that point in time?”

He could learn a thing or two from Pope Francis, whose advice on this matter is rooted in personal pastoral experience. “I stay silent. The only thing that occurs to me is to remain quiet and, depending on the trust they have in me, to take their hand.” In other words, mere presence—whether at Laude’s wake or in the Tacloban rites—would have been enough.

* * *

A related thought: If Tacloban cannot claim it was the worst-hit, why is Pope Francis visiting the city on Jan. 17?

* * *

It was by sheer coincidence that a cousin of mine met Ed Rompal, a visual artist from Tacloban who had survived the worst of Yolanda. When I finally met up with Ed, and saw the journal that he kept as he struggled to escape the nightmare that was post-storm Tacloban, I found myself deeply moved. The black and white images made an indelible impression, perhaps because they were an urgent distillation of the suffering that he had gone through. What a personal privilege, then, to publish the first 16 pages of his post-Yolanda journal online, in flip book format, on the Inquirer’s special Yolanda site: inquirer.net/yolanda. Come, please have a look.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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