In this piece, I describe President Marcos Jr.’s governance style in his first 100 days as “muddling through.” The term was first used by American political scientist and economist Charles E. Lindblom in the 1950s to argue that then-conventional wisdom was wrong: policymakers do not rely heavily or systematically on information or theory to create policy – they just “muddle through” and build on existing policies. For Lindblom, this kind of policymaking leads to incremental changes and, for him, this was a good thing – that it was best to confront what can be seen in the “branches” than what can be uncovered in the “roots.”
I do not agree with Lindblom that what lies in the branches are more important than what has been embedded in the roots. But I borrow his term “muddling through” because I think this fits President Marcos Jr.’s governance style. In his first 100 days, President Marcos has declared policies but has not been explicit about the objectives he wants to achieve or the values he wants to promote. The policy shifts are also not clear. What is clear is that he is more careful than former President Duterte in announcing policy choices – but like Duterte, his choices also do not provide coherence, i.e. not in terms of values and objectives or means and ends. Marcos Jr. seems to be delivering the same message that Duterte did during his early days as President: “Just trust me.”
Unclear vetting of Cabinet members
President Marcos Jr.’s choice of Cabinet members reveals his muddling through style of governance.
Firstly, there was obviously some attempt to vet Cabinet members. Aside from choosing his immediate circle of friends and supporters, the President also included well-known technocrats in his Cabinet. These include National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director-General Arsenio Balisacan, Department of Finance (DOF) Secretary Benjamin Diokno, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Enrique Manalo, Department of Health (DOH) OIC Maria Rosario Vergeire, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rafael Lotilla, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma, and Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Secretary Renato Solidum Jr.
Newer faces have also emerged, but they are new only to the Cabinet and not to their respective fields: Susan “Toots” Ople, Secretary of the Department of Migrant Workers, has been a longtime defender of migrants rights, and Toni Yulo-Loyzaga, Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is considered an ally by a number of organizations advocating for environmental protection and sustainable development.
Secondly, President Marcos Jr. has been inconsistent. He has not been vetting everyone. He made choices that were clearly borne out of the spoils of his electoral victory: Vic Rodriguez for Executive Secretary (now resigned), VP Sara Duterte for the Department of Education (DepEd), Trixie Cruz-Angeles for Press Secretary (now resigned), Erwin Tulfo for Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Antonio Lagdameo for Special Assistant to the President, and Juan Ponce Enrile for Chief Presidential Legal Counsel.
Thirdly, certain events have shown that factions are at play in President Marcos Jr.’s choice of Cabinet members. VP Sara Duterte was initially poised for the Department of National Defense. The President’s refusal to hand her this post speaks volumes: does he not trust Sara Duterte with the handling of the military and with issues relating to national security? Moreover, recent resignations of Rodriguez, Angeles-Cruz, and Calida suggest infighting within Marcos’ ranks. It is political naiveté to think and accept that the former resignation was just about the sugar importation controversy and the latter were due to health reasons. Abrupt, unexpected Cabinet resignations are always the result of internal, power dynamics.
It also needs to be noted that the faction of former President Duterte and Bong Go doesn’t seem to have any ally – walang “tao” – in the Marcos Jr. cabinet. This doesn’t mean, however, that the former President’s faction has no influence at all in the current government. Aside from having existing allies in Congress and the Senate, blood is always said to be thicker than water: VP Sara Duterte is not likely to totally disregard her father. Moreover, everyone (including President Marcos Jr.) knows that Sara Duterte’s victory is owed – to a very great extent – to the Rodrigo Duterte branding.
Fourthly, President Marcos Jr. seems to be having difficulty appointing people in very important agencies such as the DOH, where currently only an OIC sits as head, and the Department of Agriculture, which Marcos himself concurrently leads as secretary. This particular situation begs the question: are people saying no to him, or does he really think that having permanent heads in these agencies is not an urgent concern?
Unclear policy directions
Unlike President Rodrigo Duterte, who was quite clear with policy directions in his first 100 days (e.g. war on drugs, anti-mining, federalism, anti-contractualization), President Marcos Jr. is not clear on what he stands for – in terms of governmental priorities. While he has claimed that agriculture is his “highest priority” because of “food inadequacy,” how his government will address this problem is not clear. He said in his SONA that he will provide financial resources to equip farmers and fishers, but how he will distribute these resources remains unclear. He also mentioned condoning loans of Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries but has not clarified how his government will fully implement agrarian reform.
The Marcos Jr. government has also declared job creation as a top priority. Very recently, the NEDA Secretary declared that the unemployment rate – 7.8% in 2021 – will be back to pre-pandemic levels of 5% in 2024. This projection has been linked to the expected increase in economic activities given health protocols in place. As of this writing, however, COVID cases continue to rise, so NEDA’s starting point may not hold water. Moreover, government has not been clear on how it will address the negative impacts of the weakening peso on the domestic economy and on employment.
While the Marcos government talks of job creation as focus, it also talks about “continuing Marcos Sr.’s labor export policy.” The new Department of Migrant Workers has been poised to implement such policy. There is thus no shift in policy. Furthermore, having both labor export and job creation as priorities seems confusing: domestic job creation will always be secondary if overseas employment continues to be offered as the better, more readily available option for Filipinos.
The Marcos Jr. government’s foreign policy is also unclear. Marcos Jr. has said that he will remain friendly to both the US and China but has not clarified how the Philippines will do “a balancing act.” Moreover, Marcos Jr. has said that he will uphold the Hague ruling, but his China policy is not really clear: will he continue to be friendly with China if and when China intensifies its territorial claims?
Thus far, what the Marcos Jr. government has produced is a “functional government.” This much the President has claimed when asked of his achievements in his first 100 days in office. The problem with this declaration is that the a “functional government” is supposed to be a minimum, not an aspiration. With said pronouncement, President Marcos Jr. has set a very low bar for his government. He has also gotten away with being unclear about policy directions.
Prominence of Marcos family and elite coalition
While the priorities of this government are unclear, the prominence of the Marcos family and elite coalitional politics is crystal clear.
Marcos Jr.’s very first State of the Nation Address (SONA) was a palpable display of the renewed power of the Marcoses: Martin Romualdez as House Speaker, Sandro Marcos as congressional representative, and Imee Marcos as senator.
The usual faces of political dynasties continue to dominate the political landscape under the Marcos Jr. government: Dutertes, Villars, Estradas, Arroyos, Cayetanos, Binays, Garcias, etc. The extent and ways by which these elites will cooperate (or fight) with each other remains to be seen. The existence of this alliance, however, will certainly shape Philippine politics – and the economy – in the coming six years. This alliance will definitely be part of Marcos Jr.’s muddling through style of governance.
That Marcos Jr. will be operating with his family and his alliance of elites is not difficult to see. His official foreign travels have never been without his family, and these travels, in fact, are beginning to look like family vacations paid for by taxpayers’ money.
But to what extent will the Marcoses push their family’s renewed prominence? I think they will push it further and further – whenever and wherever possible. The Marcos Jr. government, for example, will most likely change textbooks to erase the memory of a dictatorial Marcos Sr. who engineered the dark period of Martial Law. Meanwhile, along with VP Sara Duterte, Marcos Jr. will continue red-tagging. As of this writing, there is much controversy over VP Duterte’s defense of a P150-million DepEd budget for intelligence funds (which is higher than the proposed P141-million budget of the National Intelligence Coordination Agency). While it can be argued that learners and learning institutions have security needs (as the VP has been arguing), it doesn’t bode well that a Secretary of Education wants to take such matters into her own hands – instead of forwarding security concerns to government agencies tasked with addressing these concerns. Besides, an Education Secretary’s competence is supposed to be in managing the country’s educational system, not in dealing with insurgency or terrorism.
It seems like the Marcos government – with the prominence of the Marcos family and its alliance of elites – is muddling through not only in terms of public policy but also in terms of handling people’s dissent. The acid test is when they start messing up with our textbooks. Will there be dissent? If yes, how will the Marcos government deal with such dissent? Abangan! – Rappler.com
Carmel V. Abao teaches political science at Ateneo de Manila University.