THE PEN| Legacy (First in a two-part series)

THOUGH on different sides of the hemisphere, Presidents Barack Obama and Benigno Aquino III are uncannily on the same boat. Both are at a crossroads in their careers as public servants, as the U.S. President is set to relinquish his post two years from now, and would be entrusting his would-be successor with a legacy, which, in all certainty, will be a fiercely debated topic for years to come once he vacates the White House. His Philippine counterpart, on the other hand,  though leaving behind an economy that is a lot stronger and more resilient than it was six years ago, faces a dilemma, as he remains uncertain whether the economic and political gains achieved during his presidency will be given continuity by the one who takes over the reins in Malacañang.

In his State of the Union Address early this month, an upbeat President Obama declared that the United States was, and still is, the most powerful country on the planet, although  Republicans would be hard put to take this statement hook, line and sinker. The President seemed to have regained the spring in his step and the swagger in his speech, which was reminiscent of the time he addressed crowds during his first presidential campaign wherein he popularized the phrase “audacity of hope.” However, it would not be too much a stretch of the imagination to believe his assertion that the United States still remains a superpower and a force to be reckoned with in the global stage. More than 80 percent of worldwide financial transactions are conducted in dollars. The United States accounts for more than 37 percent of global military spending, more than four times the amount spent by China. In 2013 alone, the U.S. dispensed around $32 billion in foreign aid across the globe, making it the biggest donor country. And the country remains the leader in innovation, as nine out of the eight largest tech companies in the world are based in the U.S.

But President Obama’s term of office can hardly be described as a bed of roses. When he assumed office in 2008, the U.S. was reeling from the worst financial crisis it had experienced in decades, perhaps since the last Great Depression. The nation’s economy was in shambles, as its financial sector took a heavy beating, primarily brought about by the collapse of the country’s real estate market. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans lost their jobs, banks went bankrupt, and once robust financial institutions were lining up for government bailouts. The United States was also in the midst of two brutal wars in the Middle East, which was bleeding the U.S. economy to a tune of almost $10 million a month. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers were being killed in the battlefield, millions of civilians were dying in the crossfire, as the U.S. Government seemed to have found no end in sight for a war that was anchored on the belief that Iraq’s despotic ruler had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in his arsenal.

President Obama’s first two years in office were therefore spent addressing these twin concerns, mustering every ounce of political capital he had earned during his candidacy to bring the country’s economy back on track to pre-crisis levels, as his administration tried to cushion the domestic and international blowback of the two major wars the country was embroiled in. Left with no other viable alternative, the government gave out bailouts to banks, financial entities and major corporations in the hope that a shot in the arm would eventually lead to their eventual recovery.  On the other hand, although the Saddam regime had already been toppled and replaced with a Shiite-led government, the peace and security situation in Iraq remained as volatile as ever, giving rise to various local insurgent groups, which threatened to overthrow the newly-established Shiite led-government. Moreover, the Al Qaeda still remained an influential and powerful force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. The Obama Administration focused on hitting where it mattered the most, and that was targeting the organization’s top leadership headed by its founder Osama Bin Laden.

Nearing the end of his first term, the President’s hair was not only grayer and his wrinkles more pronounced, it seemed that the political support that he had worked so hard to earn was, as observers noted, running low, as the American people felt frustrated and disenchanted, to the say the least, with the way in which the economic downturn had impacted on their livelihood and way of life. What made matters worse was, President Obama and his policy team was going against a recalcitrant Republican party in Congress which seemed to block  the administration’s proposals at every turn.  The national government’s health care reform bill, for instance, which aimed to provide better and more equitable medical benefits for all citizens, took every ounce of political will from the White House to get the nod of Congress. The Obama Administration’s proposal to pull back from Iraq was also met with opposition, as Republicans believed that this move would somehow weaken the country’s position in the region, and send a wrong signal to its allies in the Middle East.

President Aquino, on the other hand, rode on a massive wave of public support, which catapulted him to the highest position in the land. Many believe that the neophyte senator’s victory should be credited to two factors: first, Mar Roxas’ decision to withdraw from the presidential race and therefore, making Aquino the LP’s standard bearer, and second, the demise of his mother, Edsa icon Corazon Aquino, which once again galvanized the Filipino nation after so many years of political divisiveness, and elect a leader they believed would carry on the battle against graft and corruption. The younger Aquino however didn’t disappoint his countrymen, as he immediately rolled up his sleeves and hit the ground running at the start of his term to prove that his slogan “Daang Matuwid” was not merely a catchphrase but his administration’s adopted mantra.

Among the first to fall by the wayside in the Aquino Administration’s anti-corruption campaign were the incumbent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and concurrent Ombudsman who were both impeached, with the former’s failure to honestly disclose his assets and liabilities which amounted to hundreds of millions, while the latter was accused of underperformance and having failed to act on several graft cases filed during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Charges of plunder and malversation of public funds were also filed against three sitting senators after a highly-charged Senate Blue Ribbon investigation revealed their alleged involvement in the “PDAF” scandal. Though some skeptics believe that the cases levelled against these public officials were all politically motivated, the Aquino government has stood firm in its assertion that the charges were not tainted with politics, but were carried out to give flesh to the administration’s battle cry of transparent and accountable governance.

Next on the Philippine President’s agenda was the peace process in Mindanao, which he vowed to decisively address when he assumed office. Unlike the previous two administrations which half-heartedly negotiated with the rebel forces through the barrel of the gun, Aquino and his policy team were more cautious and deliberate, learning from the lessons of the past and choosing to deal not only from a position of strength, but more importantly, from a moral and historical standpoint. The President gathered some of the best academic, political and legal heads in government and assembled the government peace panel which dealt directly with the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MNLF). The GRP panel, headed by chief negotiator Shiela Coronel-Ferrer,  would forge on and despite major opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, would pull of what was deemed impossible years ago: the approval of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (FAB) and the signing of the final peace agreement between the Philippine Government and the MILF.

President Aquino’s credibility however took a major hit during when the Mamasapano incident broke out, which threatened to flush down the drain all the inroads which his administration had painstakingly worked hard to achieve. The brunt of the blame fell on the shoulders of the Chief Executive who, critics stressed, was the country’s Commander-In-Chief, and therefore, should be held accountable for the death of the Special Action Force members. Senate hearings on the massacre would reveal that the invisible hand of the former PNP Chief was behind the botched police-led operations, as Interior Secretary Mar Roxas appeared to be misinformed and was reportedly kept in the dark by the President himself and Gen. Purisima. The President’s approval rating hit an all-time law, as citizens expressed their distrust for the Chief Executive and his administration which, to their minds, were incapable of competently handling situations of internal conflict.

Notwithstanding the barbs that have been thrown at him and his team – from the manner in which the administration handled the Typhoon Yolanda relief efforts, the Mindanao power crisis, and the country’s crime situation – the chief executive and his policy team have managed to ably steer the country’s economy to greater heights. The country posted its highest GDP in years – 7.8 in 2013 – which was an impressive feat in itself. And as the economy due to the fast-expanding real estate sector and the bullish stock market, which hit record highs, as credit rating agencies such as Standard and Poor raised the Philippines’ credit rating a notch above the minimum investment grade.  Although the nation’s growth rate has tapered down the past year, the country’s economic fundamentals have remained stable, making the nation a destination of choice among multi-national companies who want to expand their international operations.

(To be continued in tomorrow’s issue.)

Posted in Opinion