Public Eye
APRIL - JUNE 2003
VOL. IX   NO. 2

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The Transactional President
by Malou Mangahas

Picture Imperfect
by Tony Velasquez

The Problem with Gloria

She is smart, she works hard, and she tries her damnedest best to please. But why is GMA not loved?

by Sheila S. Coronel

PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo doesn’t quite have it. What “it” is exactly, her supporters cannot quite say. After all, she is smart, she works hard, and she tries her damnedest best to please.

One year to the end of her term, President Arroyo isn't winning any more hearts. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

One year to the end of her term, President Arroyo isn't winning any more hearts. [photo courtesy of Malaya]
Already some of them are despairing over this undefinable inadequacy. In March, Arroyo’s net satisfaction ratings hit their lowest ever, diving to –13 percent in a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey. One year to the end of her term, it doesn’t look like the president is winning any more hearts. No matter how hard she tries, she is not loved.

Her father Diosdado Macapagal, who was president from 1961 to 1965, was similarly handicapped. Of him, the ever-articulate Ninoy Aquino once said, “People respected him but he aroused no real love, adoration, idolatry… Macapagal was dry, stingy with praise, slow to appreciate, not demonstrative, not communicative.”

This charisma deficit was one of the reasons Cong Dadong lost to the dashing and mediagenic Ilocano senator Ferdinand Marcos in 1965. Forty years later, this inability to inspire affection is pulling down his daughter as well. “She has no feeling for people,” says Malaya columnist Ellen Tordesillas, who has covered Malacañang since the Aquino presidency. “She treats them like they were beneath her.”

Unfortunately for GMA, that is how most Filipinos judge a president. Political scientist Felipe Miranda, who runs the Asia Pulse polling agency sometimes consulted by Malacañang, says it is “malasakit” or empathy that people want, a sense that leaders genuinely care for them, never mind if they don’t deliver. Erap had empathy, but it was largely for show. Ramon Magsaysay exuded it and his genuine affection for ordinary people restored faith not only in the presidency but also in parliamentary democracy. Marcos, before he became a dreaded despot, was a persuasive public speaker who sold to Filipinos a vision of greatness.

The young Gloria Macapagal (extreme right) grew up to become like her father, Diosdado (second from right), a president who was respected but not loved. [photo courtesy of Lopez Museum]

The young Gloria Macapagal (extreme right) grew up to become like her father, Diosdado (second from right), a president who was respected but not loved. [photo courtesy of Lopez Museum]
Arroyo, however, does not pack in the crowds. She performs badly in public. The gravelly voice does not help. On TV, she looks like she is perpetually suppressing a pout. Sure, she will sing, dance and smile, but the more she tries to please, the more people perceive her as unappealing, humorless, and insincere.

Malacañang chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao, a former journalist (and one of the founders of the PCIJ), blames the bad handling by the president’s image-makers. In the first two years of her term, Dante Ang, the president’s erstwhile publicist, packaged and repackaged her as something she was not: from the approachable Ate Glo to the teary Ina ng Bayan (Mother of the Nation). The images were so far removed from reality that the president’s credibility suffered as a result. The lack of empathy was compounded by a surfeit of sincerity.

The president’s advisers have since wisened up. They now concede that people were, at best, confused by the endless spins. At worst, they saw through the artifice and refused to take in any of the messages that were being churned by the Malacañang media machine. They just tuned out.

Let’s face it, GMA is no pop icon (the resemblance to superstar Nora Aunor notwithstanding). Two years, however, is a rather long time to figure that out, and another year to undo the damage may not be enough. Today, the lightweight packaging has been dispensed with and Tiglao says they are trying to project Arroyo for what she really is: “a serious president.” After all, a Strong Republic deserves no less. For sure, no one is laughing now, but that Arroyo would have allowed herself to be cast into what she was not was an indication not only of bad judgment and advice, but also of an overeagerness to be elected president in 2004.

The announcement in December that she was renouncing any presidential ambitions beyond next year should have put an end to all that. But the polls show that she is now even more unloved.

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