Last year Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued what amounted to an in-your-face, say-what-you-will, I-dare-you-to contradict-me challenge in response to what were then already record lows in her approval ratings. Mrs. Arroyo declared that she would rather be right than popular — as if one were possible only without the other, and which presumes that what’s popular is necessarily wrong.

The occasion was that yearly ritual called the State of the Nation Address. Like Oscar awards night in Hollywood, the SONA has its own red carpet moments, when our presumptive betters alight from their limousines into the glare of TV lights and public attention. In the Batasan hall itself, Mrs. Arroyo usually delivers her SONA in a sea of congressional matrons, cabinet ladies, and congresswomen showing off their latest P200,000 gowns and most recent purchases from the ritzy jewelry shops of Manila, Sydney, New York, London, Rome and Paris.

I’m sure that this Monday (July 28th) we’ll see the same spectacle at the Batasan, complete with the more modest P20,000 barongs of our favorite male trapos, some of whom, however, will be sporting gold bracelets and necklaces — the chunkier the better — and the diamond pinky rings Mafia dons favor. After all, Mrs. Arroyo did bring with her not only her entire family but also a horde of congressmen and cabinet secretaries and their wives when she visited the United States last June to connect with George W. Bush and US presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.

If that trip was anything, it was a titanic public-funds-paid-for opportunity to do some really fabulous shopping at Saks and Tiffany’s — while a typhoon was ravaging the country of our sorrows and a rust bucket sinking with 800 souls trapped in it in the company of tons of a pesticide that was supposed to be banned but is still in use, the better for us to savor the sweetness of Del Monte pineapples.

The SONA being no more than an occasion for Mrs. Arroyo and what passes for leadership in this country to paint the state of the nation in the rosiest colors, I honestly don’t know what Mrs. Arroyo will be saying on Monday.

Will she insist again, as she has for the last four SONAs, that the country’s economic fundamentals are strong, against which neither the tides of recession nor sky-high gas prices will prevail? Will she assuage widespread fears of runaway inflation with the assurance that the billions the government makes from the Value Added Tax on oil products are being used not only for P500 handouts and to line the pockets of certain bureaucrats, but also to finance job-generating efforts beyond hiring the unemployed to clean out gutters and esteros?

Will she allege that the country’s on the verge of entry into first-world status, as she had the gall to declare last year? Will she claim this year, as she didn’t last year, that the poor are finally benefiting from the “economic surge” that she said was in progress? Will she once more proclaim that she’s right though unpopular, the latest SWS survey on her approval ratings having found those to be — again — in record lows, at minus 38 percent to be exact?

These would be claims too incredible to make even for such a one as our putative though de facto president. My favorite Malacanang spokesperson, Lorelei Fajardo, apparently an alumna of one of those schools that dare call themselves “exclusive” because they’re expensive, said her boss’ basement-level approval ratings — if they were any lower she would be shaking hands with the devil — were “part of the burden of leadership that all leaders of the world must carry.”

Among the “leaders of the world” she mentioned was George W. Bush, whose approval ratings aren’t as low as Mrs. Arroyo’s, but who has been shown to be such an incompetent he wouldn’t be elected dog catcher in a third class municipality in a clean election. Is Ms. Fajardo trying to tell us something?

The same Lorelei Fajardo also declared that it’s “lonely at the top,” but that “where else can the people look to for relief but from the President and the government?”

The second question-statement makes about as much sense as that of Cerge Remonde, head of the Presidential Management Staff, who declared Mrs. Arroyo’s abysmal approval ratings “unfair” because she’s “very dedicated and very hardworking.” Mrs. Arroyo may indeed be hardworking, dedicated etc. But the question is, in doing exactly what?

For many Filipinos, say the surveys, it’s keeping herself in power, which is how they greeted her appeal to the oil companies to roll back gas prices last week and to which the latter responded by cutting P1.50 off the price per liter of diesel fuel.

You could probably count on the fingers of both hands and the toes of both feet, tops, the number of Filipinos who would believe Mrs. Arroyo even if she declared that the sun sets in the West and rises in the East.

But I wouldn’t call that a tragedy since it’s state she’s brought to herself through, among other examples of sheer cheek, the statements she makes about the health of the economy while 14.5 million Filipinos go hungry; millions more sleep under bridges, in carts, or on newspapers spread on the sidewalk; thousands die in floods, mudslides and other calamities including ships that suddenly slide into the ocean depths; and generally do without civilized life’s necessities, including education and health care.

But Ms. Fajardo says that’s the way leadership is, it’s lonely at the top, meaning no one really understands the poor dear. We might very well ask why, if she’s so lonely, she insists on staying there? The answer to that every Filipino in his or her right mind knows, as he or she daily lives the real state of the nation.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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