WHEN Barack Obama was elected US President in 2008, hopes ran high that change was forthcoming both in the United States itself as well as abroad.
Obama would decisively address the economic crisis at home, reduce the unemployment rate by creating the conditions that would generate jobs, and put an end to the federal budget deficit.
In the international arena, the first black president of the United States would pull US forces out of Iraq, find and prosecute the leaders of Al Qaida, promote stability and peace in Afghanistan, shut down the US prison in its Guantanamo base in Cuba, and end the CIA practice of rendition — the transfer of suspected terrorists to other countries where torture is practiced — as well as the killing of non-combatants in Pakistan. And all of this would be achieved while human rights are respected, and the rule of US and international law upheld.
Some Filipino commentators went way beyond these great expectations. Some predicted the coming of a new, global age of peace and enlightenment, praising Obama to high heavens and apparently reposing in him the capacity to change overnight not only the United States but even the entire world, including the Philippines. To these commentators Obama was not only Superman. He was also a god, if not God Himself.
His US supporters have since been disappointed. The US federal deficit has remained, since, obviously, no one can undo within two years what it took George W. Bush eight years to do, least of all in the context of the economic downturn. US unemployment levels remain high despite the creation of several hundred thousand jobs since 2008. The economic crisis at home has ended — officially. For thousands of families it is as real as it was two years ago in terms of incomes, and — a major indicator of the state of the economy– their limited capacity to buy or build the homes that are so much a part of the American dream.
US troops meanwhile are still in Iraq, though in diminished numbers. Their increased numbers in Afghanistan have not resulted in greater stability there, or for that matter, the defeat of the Taliban or the capture of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaida leaders. The US prison in Guantanamo is intact, rendition is continuing, and the killing of civilians in Pakistan has even grown in number due to Obama’s authorization of more drone (unmanned, missile-armed aircraft) attacks on perceived terrorist targets. Obama promised a departure from Bush policies, but has ended up on the same road.
Obama has also been accused of being indecisive in other policy areas than he had promised to be, the most recent case in point being his supposed dilly-dallying in addressing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest in US history.
There are parallels between US and foreign expectations of Obama on the one hand, and on the other, Filipino expectations of Benigno Aquino III. These expectations derive from their promise to be the opposite of what their respective predecessors were and to undo the harm they did. Obama ran against an unpopular administration Americans could hardly wait to get rid of. Aquino ran against a corrupt and despised administration and an even more loathed President.
It’s understandable for practically the same commentators who thought Obama the new Messiah to expect the world of Aquino III. But it is also foolish — and apparently based on certain naïve assumptions. The leading one is that, in much the same way that the political and governance system so easily succumbed to the wishes of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it could just as easily yield to Aquino’s. Aquino’s wishes are of course clear enough: he wants to end corruption in order to end poverty. But getting there demands that he use the very system that for decades has been corruption-ridden, and, what’s more, that he explore less traveled paths in achieving that goal.
Corruption is only one of the causes of the increasing pauperization of the country and its people. The economic policies that for decades have been in place — liberalization and privatization as well as the reliance on foreign investments to drive economic development — have been tried and tested and found wanting. But, child of a particular view of the Filipino world as he is, and surrounded by, among others, the apostles of those very policies, Aquino III has this early indicated no departure from the failed policies of his predecessors, including the unlamented Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Aquino’s recycling of certain officials from Arroyo’s administration is sending that very message of non-departure from the most-traveled roads of Philippine governance. His choice of Alberto Romulo for Foreign Affairs Secretary — who was mostly an implementor of Arroyo’s policies rather than a pro-active advocate — is suggestive of it. Aquino’s choice of a priest for Education Secretary implies that the same adherence to Church doctrine that characterized Arroyo regime policy would be in place in the crucial area of basic education. Not surprisingly, Brother Armin Luistro immediately announced that he would “review” the Department’s sex-education policy — a “review” likely to end in its total scuttling, which is the Church preference. It doesn’t make sense either for a priest to be in charge of an educational system that’s mostly public, and presumably secular.
Certainly Aquino III can turn out to be more than Arroyo was. But what the country needs now is a feet- on-the-ground sense of what it could reasonably expect from his government. That assessment has to keep in mind the fundamental fact that he is both a child of the very system he has promised to reform, as well as, for the next six years, the lead actor in that system. One need only remember the variety of contending groups that surround him to realize that to expect so much despite the reality of that system’s flaws and demonstrated failures is to risk the most extreme disappointment later.