By Rosemarie Francisco
MANILA (Reuters) - Two days before one of the world's most powerful typhoons rammed into the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino had a simple but ambitious target for all government agencies: zero casualties.
Fast-forward a week: thousands are dead, anger is growing over the slow relief effort and Aquino's once-unassailable popularity is under threat - along with the reforms that have helped transform the Philippines into one of Asia's fastest-growing and hottest emerging economies.
Aquino faces a challenge that could define and undermine his presidency in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, whose 313 km per hour (195 mph) winds and tsunami-like wall of water turned coastal regions into corpse-strewn wastelands.
The 53-year-old heir to a political dynasty appears to have been caught off guard by the magnitude of the devastation and has struggled to quell the growing frustration among survivors.
He's appeared only briefly on TV, including once from the city of Tacloban huddling with local officials and again at the Malacanang presidential palace to announce a national calamity. Other media appearances, from both Manila and the affected areas, have been rare.
"He should have grasped the enormity of the crisis," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms in Manila.
"This could be big. If nothing happens in the next week or so, and the rehabilitation goes haywire, he will have a big political problem."
Aquino spokesman Herminio Coloma both defended the president's performance but said criticism of the government was understandable.
The president had avoided visits to the hardest-hit areas so stretched local government officials were not distracted from relief work, Coloma added.
"We do not deny that there may have been shortcomings but that is borne out of severe constraints ... The severity and magnitude of this disaster are unprecedented and unparalleled in our previous experience," he said.
"WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?"
On Sunday, while in Tacloban, Aquino refused to believe reports that the city of 220,000 people was 95 percent devastated, with looting in some parts, according to an official who was there when the president met local authorities.
He complained that disaster officials were giving him conflicting reports, with no reliable information after the typhoon brought down telephone and power lines, said the source, who declined to be identified so he could speak candidly.
One TV network quoted Aquino as telling the head of the disaster agency he was running out of patience. Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was just "discouraged" with the incomplete data he was getting.
Compounding Aquino's problems is the slow delivery of aid. For the first six days, the government distributed only 50,000 "food packs" containing 6 kg (13 lb) of rice and canned goods each day, covering just 3 percent of the 1.73 million families affected, according to government figures
As desperation grew, local media have begun to question Aquino's leadership.
"Who's in charge here?" ran a headline in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Thursday.
The stakes are high for Aquino - and for the Philippines, whose economy has been one of the most robust in Asia this year. After winning control of Congress in May elections, Aquino plans to lift spending on roads and airports to a record next year to attract more investment.
Since he took office on July 1, 2010, the benchmark stock index has surged nearly 90 percent and foreign direct investment has more than doubled.
But Filipino frustration, on the streets of Tacloban and in social media, could change the course of his single six-year term that ends in 2016.
"Some of the concerns will be what this means not so much to his popularity and political stability, but more on whether this will prove to be a distraction in terms of the reform agenda in the remainder of his term," said Euben Paracuelles, economist for Southeast Asia at Nomura in Singapore.
With the military at the forefront of recovery and relief operations, and government agencies struggling to deliver basic services, Aquino's support base could weaken, something governments before him have endured at their peril.
Two Philippine leaders have been ousted in the last three decades, while the previous government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faced several coup attempts in her troubled nine-year rule.
Political analysts say Aquino's ratings will likely suffer in the next opinion polls, especially in the typhoon-swept central Philippine provinces that have been bastions of support. Those areas registered the highest regional net satisfaction rating of "excellent" in assessing his performance in polls this year.
Across the central Philippines, desperate families appear regularly on TV news programs, often in tears, some holding signs reading "Help us" or "We need food".
Although the government warned of record-breaking winds and a surge of seawater, evacuations were poorly enforced.
And the aid, when it came, was slow.
Foreign aid agencies said relief resources were stretched thin after a big earthquake in central Bohol province last month and displacement caused by fighting with rebels in the country's south, complicating efforts to get supplies in place before the storm struck.
Aquino has defended the government's preparations, saying the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies.
The toll itself has been a point of contention.
On Tuesday, Aquino said the number of deaths may have been overstated and could be 2,000 to 2,500, a figure aid agencies and analysts consider too low in the absence of accurate reports from far-flung areas and with thousands missing.
Aquino said estimates of 10,000 dead by local officials were overstated and caused by "emotional trauma". Elmer Soria, a regional police chief who gave that estimate to media, was removed from his post on Thursday. A day later, Tacloban City Hall estimated the nationwide toll at 4,000.
"Downplaying the impact of the disaster, including the death toll, does not do anybody any good," said Mars Buan, senior analyst at political risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments.
Aquino has also stressed that no government could fully prepare for the scale of the disaster, comments that have drawn criticism.
"He's already done a 180-degree turnaround," said Benito Lim, a professor of political science at Ateneo de Manila University. "He is trying to exonerate himself from what he said earlier: 'zero casualties'."
At one point last year, Aquino, the only son of democracy icon and former president Corazon Aquino, enjoyed a 74 percent approval rating.
Then a scandal over lawmakers' misuse of public funds erupted, threatening to undermine the platform that got Aquino into office - curbing corruption.
A whistleblower revealed in July that some lawmakers, including the president's allies, were stealing up to half the money being allocated to local projects from discretionary government funds.
Aquino has since been accused of failing to convincingly tackle a culture of political patronage. His popularity rating sank to 49 percent in September.
The challenge now for Aquino, a week after Typhoon Haiyan, is to speed up the flow of aid and rebuild the confidence of a nation shattered by one of its worst natural disasters.
"I think he will not be popular despite the fact that he is trying his best," said Lim.
(Additional reporting by Karen Lema, Manuel Mogato and Erik Dela Cruz. Editing by Jason Szep and Dean Yates)