In about a week’s time, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. will deliver his inaugural State of the Nation Address (SONA) before the Congress of the Philippines. It is one of the Constitutional duties of the Chief Executive expressed in Article VII, Section 23 of the 1987 Constitution: “The President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.”
The President does this every year and he or she is expected to report on the state of the country, lay out the administration’s plans for the coming year and, more importantly, present a legislative agenda for the members of Congress to consider. I have listened to many SONAs in my 21 years of public service and what I do remember is that the address is an opportunity for the leader of the land to set the tone for his presidency. It allows the president to send a clear message of what he wants to accomplish.
I know that some people will be more interested in the fashion statements of those attending—both members of Congress and guests—but the real statement we need to be interested in is the specific plan of the President.
The SONA naturally cannot cover all issues and topics, this is why at the end of all SONAs you have “analysts” and “experts” complaining that the SONA did not cover this or that issue. The Chief Executive probably will need to speak for 24 hours if we want him to cover all the topics important to all sectors in society. And then we complain that the SONA takes too long.
At any rate, the executive agencies of government will submit the detailed agenda and there is, of course, the budget of agencies which Congress will scrutinize. The SONA should not be generic but it cannot be too specific. The idea is to clearly show the direction the President intends to take in tackling the challenges facing the country.
I have high hopes for the first SONA of President Bongbong. I think he fully understands the gravity of the problem and that he has studied and prepared well. In his June 30 inauguration speech, he said:
“I did not talk much in this campaign. I did not bother to think of rebutting my rivals. Instead, I searched for promising approaches better than the usual solutions. I listened to you. I did not lecture you who has the biggest stake in our success and the forthcoming State of the Nation will tell you exactly how we shall get this done (emphasis mine).”
I expect him to provide a roadmap for the first year of his presidency. His initial statements and the nature of his initial Cabinet appointments have already indicated his priorities but the SONA should give it more structure.
The most crucial thing that I hope the President will lay out is his plan for our economic recovery. The Covid-19 pandemic has pretty much wiped out all the gains we achieved over the past two decades. Our growth has sputtered, unemployment increased, the stock market is sluggish, the peso has stumbled and, because of externalities we have no control over, inflation is surging. But thanks to former President Rodrigo Duterte’s excellent performance in managing the pandemic especially during the tail-end of his administration, we have seen the start of a revival for the Philippine economy. The key for President Marcos is to present a plan that will sustain this economic recovery while at the same time managing the pandemic and its impact on public health.
His inaugural address pointed to his team “drawing up a comprehensive all-inclusive plan for economic transformation…(that) will build back better by doing things in the light of the experiences that we have had, both good and bad.” This is a good sign. Learning from experiences of the past is always a good place to start in terms of understanding what to do in the future. In his meetings with his economic managers, the President was said to have given the orders to “push for economic recovery amid the country’s battle with the pandemic”.
It should never be falsely framed as the economy vs. health dichotomy. We cannot focus on one and neglect the other. The President, hopefully, has crafted a plan that balances the need to rehabilitate our economy and protect our people from the coronavirus.
The SONA should give us an indication of the kind of leadership President Marcos will exhibit during his term. Whether we agree with his plans or not, our goal should be the same—solving our problems and a better future for our children.