When it comes to scandal, the Obama White House is like a corner man in a boxing match who refuses to throw in the towel.
As the dreadful rollout of Obamacare dragged on for months late last year, the president ignored calls to fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and instead kept sending her out into the ring to take more punishment from Congress and the press.
Now, the president appears to be doing the same with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the former four-star Army General who has been the focus of mounting anger from lawmakers and the general public. Amid a growing scandal over veterans being forced to wait months for needed health care, the president appeared at a press conference Wednesday, and said that he had instructed Shinseki to remain focused on the issue. “We’re going to work with him to solve the problem,” Obama said.
Obama’s playbook doesn’t let his senior manager off the hook entirely. With Sebelius, he brought in Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant and one-man efficiency office—a move that Sebelius should have made earlier, perhaps with a different individual. In Shinseki’s case, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors has been appointed to investigate the problems (and presumably report directly to Obama). These two appointments by Obama are fair warning to any manager that their authority is being challenged, and it’s an obvious invitation to resign.
The uproar began last month, when a Congressional hearing revealed that as many as 40 veterans had died waiting for appointments at the VA Hospital in Phoenix and that administrators of the hospital had misled the public about the lengthy delays facing patients seeking care there.
In the weeks that followed, investigators uncovered similar practices at other VA hospitals around the country, provoking public outrage about the treatment of veterans.
The scandal has given the public and lawmakers a lens through which to focus on larger underlying problems at the VA. The influx of hundreds of thousands of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has severely backed up the VA’s system for processing claims and providing treatment--and that problem isn’t new. As long as two years ago, the number of unprocessed disability claims more than 125 days old had reached 560,000.
On Wednesday morning, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL), whose committee had spearheaded the investigation, said, “Every rock we turn over, there’s another problem.”
Last week, at a hearing on Capitol Hill, legislators were underwhelmed by Shinseki’s claim that he was “mad as hell” when he learned about the delays.
Some members of Congress, while expressing admiration for Shinseki’s own military service, have called for him to resign, and when Obama met with Shinseki in a publicly announced meeting Wednesday morning, that’s exactly what many expected to happen.
However, when Obama appeared at the podium in the White House briefing room after the meeting, he made it clear that Shinseki was still running the VA, and that he expected that to continue.
“Rick Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran,” Obama said, adding that “nobody cares more” about the country’s veterans. “He has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously.”
Obama promised that when the investigation of the problems at the VA is complete, he would demand accountability, seeming to imply that Shinseki’s position is not completely safe. But, as with Sebelius, he appears willing to let the sitting VA Secretary deal with the problems that have arisen on his own watch.
In the end, Obama’s refusal to satisfy critics howling for Sebelius’s head looked like a good call. After the troubled healthcare exchanges righted themselves in early 2014 and produced enrollment numbers exceeding all expectations, Sebelius was able to announce her retirement with a measure of dignity last month, stepping out of the ring with a reputation that, while dented, was not ruined.
The President appears to be affording Shinseki the same sort of opportunity. Now, the old soldier has to see if he can find it in himself to go a few more rounds with an angry Congress.
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