An economist by training, Macapagal-Arroyo spent two years at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She then returned to the Philippines, where she graduated from Assumption College in Manila in 1968 with a degree in commerce and economics. She went on to earn graduate degrees in economics from Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Philippines.
In 1968 she married José Miguel Arroyo. The couple had three children. She spent her early professional life as an economics professor and held teaching positions in various institutions in the Philippines, including all three of her almamaters.
Macapagal-Arroyo entered government service when she was invited by President Corazon Aquino to join the Department of Trade and Industry as assistant secretary in 1987. In 1989 she became the undersecretary. At the same time she also held the post of executive director of the Garment and Textile Export Board.
Macapagal-Arroyo made her first foray into politics when she campaigned successfully for a seat in the Philippine Senate in 1992. Three years later she was overwhelmingly reelected. She drew upon her own academic training and experience to push for social and economic reform legislation.
In 1998 she entered presidential politics as a vice presidential candidate, running with presidential candidate José De Venecia. While she emerged victorious with almost 13 million votes, the largest number ever earned by a presidential or vice presidential candidate, her running mate lost to the incumbent vice president, Joseph Estrada.
President Estrada appointed his vice president to the cabinet as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. But the Estrada administration quickly became embroiled in a corruption scandal.
As president Macapagal-Arroyo faced many challenges, not the least of which was questions about the legitimacy of the court’s action. She had to contend with demonstrations by pro-Estrada supporters in May 2001. She declared a State of Rebellion, which was lifted a few days later.
Two years later she faced another challenge to her authority when junior officers and soldiers mutinied to push for reforms to the armed forces. The incident ended in their peaceful surrender.
A more pressing problem was the Philippine economy. The Asian financial crisis, the Second Gulf War, and the mounting deficit contributed to turbulent economic times. Late in 2001 Macapagal-Arroyo announced the implementation of Holiday Economics, a policy that involved adjustments to national holidays so that Filipinos could enjoy longer weekends. The government hoped this would promote domestic tourism and in turn stimulate economic growth. The program yielded mixed results.
National security issues also preoccupied Macapagal-Arroyo. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Macapagal-Arroyo quickly pledged Filipino support for President George W. Bush’s War on Terror in the hope that her domestic problems could now be subsumed under the fight against international terrorism.
After the U.S. invasion, the Philippines sent a small number of troops to Iraq to work on civic and humanitarian projects, but Macapagal-Arroyo ordered their withdrawal to free a Filipino civilian who had been taken hostage in July 2004.
In 2004 Macapagal-Arroyo decided to seek another six-year term. In a four-way race, Macapagal-Arroyo emerged victorious in May 2004, but questions about legitimacy continued to dog her presidency when revelations involving her remarks to an election officer about needing a certain number of electoral votes surfaced, leading to accusations of corrupt electoral practices.