Defining Moment for Obama and PNoy
A president’s “defining moment” is generally said to be the event which either makes or breaks him and which determines the course of his future. For Pres. Barack Obama, this occurred on May 1, 2011 with the killing of Osama bin Laden. For Pres. Noynoy Aquino (PNoy), his defining moment preceded Obama’s by just two days and it came with the resignation of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.
The significance of Obama’s defining moment, as Charles Larlham describes it, is in the context of the fact that “every President for 20 years has tried to find and neutralize this terrorist leader. After the events of 9/11, President George W. Bush started a war and destroyed a country's government to find him. But it was Obama who was able to run him to the ground and 'take him out.' And now the President is riding the ecstatic reaction of tens of thousands of people in Times Square, Washington D.C. and around the country.”
Pres. Obama did what candidate Obama promised to do during his second presidential debate with Sen. John McCain on October 7, 2008: “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take him out, then I think that we have to act and we will take him out. We will kill bin Laden.; we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."
Obama delivered on his promise and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani agreed that he deserves full credit for the killing of Osama because he would have received all the blame if the military operation had failed.
Pres. Obama's approval rating has zoomed to its highest point in two years – 60 percent – and more than half of Americans now say he deserves to be re-elected, according to recent polls which show that Obama’s standing had improved not just on foreign policy but also on the economy.
Unlike the killing of Osama which was high drama for Obama, the resignation of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez was a low-key affair that was not even the major news of the day as it was eclipsed by wall-to-wall coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London which was viewed by two billion people worldwide.
But the high significance of the Ombudsman's resignation should be viewed in the context of the fact that PNoy’s presidential campaign was anchored on his promise to rid the country of corruption (“kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap”) by starting with the prosecution of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
When Arroyo went after her predecessor, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, and sought to prosecute him for plunder and corruption, she had the benefit of the support of the Ombudsman who was appointed by Erap’s predecessor and of a Supreme Court which was also dominated by justices appointed by Erap's predecessors.
PNoy was handicapped by the fact that the Ombudsman in his watch was an appointee of his predecessor whose chief virtue was her abiding loyalty to the president who appointed her to high office. As long as Merceditas Gutierrez was the Ombudsman, no charges would ever be filed against Arroyo or any of her appointees, she would make sure of that.
PNoy sought to get around the prophylactic protection provided to Arroyo by the Ombudsman by signing an Executive Order creating a Truth Commission that would investigate the corruption of the previous administration. Even though the commission was generally considered toothless, its constitutionality was still challenged before the Philippine Supreme Court, the vast majority of whom were, like Gutierrez, appointees of Arroyo, and it was predictably struck down as unconstitutional.
PNoy’s only hope of being rid of Arroyo’s Ombudsman was to have her impeached by the House of Representatives and all he needed was 93 votes and surely he could gather that number. But before he could get the House to vote on the impeachment motion, the Ombudsman raised a legal challenge that there can only be one impeachment complaint filed against her in any given year and two were filed.
The House sponsors of the impeachment complaint explained that the two bills would be combined as one, which happens all the time. But the Ombudsman sought and obtained a restraining order from the Supreme Court stopping the House from voting on her impeachment.
The SC justices, perhaps unwilling to remain tainted forever as lapdogs of Arroyo, overturned the restraining order and allowed the House to vote to impeach the Ombudsman.
On March 21, 2011, PNoy easily secured 212 votes in the House of Representatives, more than enough to impeach Ombudsman Gutierrez without even having to send Philippine Navy Seals to accomplish the mission and, despite reports that Arroyo had spent P100 million pesos to defeat the impeachment motion.
The significance of this vote, as presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda explained, is that “by doing so, the House has put an end to the long era of impunity that tarnished our institutions and made a mockery of the bedrock principle of accountability that is the bedrock of our Constitution.”
Newspaper reports confirmed that Arroyo personally visited the Ombudsman at her home on the day of the impeachment vote perhaps to assure her that PNoy did not have enough Senate votes to secure her ouster and that was the conventional wisdom.
As only 1/3rd of the House votes was needed for an impeachment to succeed, that first part was a picnic. The next step, the Senate trial, would be infinitely more challenging as PNoy would need 2/3rds of the vote or 16 out of the 23 sitting senators.
Pres. Aquino could likely secure the 16 votes he needed to oust Gutierrez but there would be a heavy price to pay. Each of the senators would want something in return for their vote. Sen. Ping Lacson may want PNoy to get his Department of Justice to drop its criminal prosecution of him for his alleged role in the kidnap-murder of Salvador Dacer and Emmanuel Corbito. Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos may want PNoy’s pledge to allow his father to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
It may be recalled that when his ally, Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, sought the Senate presidency last year, Sen. Lito Lapid made it crystal clear that he would support PNoy’s candidate only if his son, Mark Lapid, would be retained in his post as General Manager of the Philippine Tourism Authority. As Kiko bowed out of the Senate presidency contest, Sen. Lapid needs another Senate vote to secure the permanent appointment of his son.
When former Pres. Joseph Estrada was facing ouster by the Philippine Senate at his impeachment trial in January of 2001, he appointed the mother of one grateful senator as Ambassador to Mexico and reportedly awarded a P750 million peso dam construction project to the husband of another senator. That’s the politics of back scratching that is common in Congress.
If Merci Gutierrez had not tendered her resignation to Pres. Aquino on April 28, 2011, PNoy would have had to scratch the backs of an awful number of senators or, rather, a number of awful senators. In seeking the ouster of Arroyo’s Ombudsman in order appoint his own, PNoy would have laid the grounds for the corruption of his own administration.
Because of what PNoy did not have to give up, the resignation of Ombudsman Merci Gutierrez was the defining moment of his presidency.
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