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When a President Learns Everything on TV

Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sought to partially walk back his statement yesterday in which he said President Obama learned about the growing scandal at the Veterans Administration by watching a report on the topic on CNN. After realizing just how bad that sounded, Carney returned to the daily briefing with the White House press corps today to say that his statement was being misinterpreted. According to Carney, what he really meant to say was that the president had only heard of the “specific allegations” about misconduct at VA hospitals by watching television. But, he insisted, the president was aware of problems at the VA, as proved by statements he had made during his 2008 presidential campaign when he promised to fix the agency.

Which is to say that, yes, Barack Obama had heard of the VA and had some vague intention to improve it as part of an effort to pose as someone who cares about our nation’s veterans. But between his arrival in the Oval Office and his subsequent appointment of retired Army General Eric Shinseki to head the VA in 2009 and the moment when he stumbled into awareness about the scandal during the course of spending some quality time with his remote control, he hadn’t given the topic much, if any, thought.

The administration’s problem here is not just that the VA scandal is far more serious than even Carney is currently willing to admit and that any action it is currently taking to address the plague of mismanagement and corruption that may have cost the lives of at least 40 veterans while they awaited treatment is too little and too late. As I noted last week, having an absentee president is bad for both the health of veterans and the nation. The president may have gotten away with treating the IRS scandal as no big deal and questions about Benghazi as merely a Republican witch hunt. But the spectacle of widespread corruption at the heart of a government health-care system that led to the deaths of veterans is not one you can pass off as a product of the fevered imaginations of his opponents. That’s especially true when you consider that Rep. Jeff Miller, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote specifically to the president a year ago to bring to his attention what was already believed to be a widespread problem involving inefficiency and deceptive practices.

The fact that the White House resorted to what has become its standard second-term excuse for government scandal with a line about the president hearing about it on TV or by reading the newspapers raises serious questions about both his leadership and the intelligence of his staff. After all, surely it must have occurred to someone at the White House that using the same excuse about hearing of it in the media wasn’t likely to work after it had been employed with little success to distance him from the IRS and other scandals. Such intellectual laziness speaks to a West Wing that is both collapsing from intellectual fatigue as well as having acquired an almost complete contempt for both the press and public opinion.

The consequences here aren’t limited to the growing credibility gap that this administration continues to build. It’s bad enough that no one—not even his most ardent supporters—really believe that the president is on top of these issues. But what really stings is that Carney and the rest of the inhabitants of the Obama echo chamber have really come to believe that no one cares whether they are telling the truth or not.

Just as important is the reality of a government that is out of the control of its leader. A year ago Miller noted that one of the chief problems at the VA was a lack of accountability. That’s still true of the agency, as the deaths of veterans has provoked a low-key administration response that has left Secretary Shinseki in charge of a problem that grew worse on his watch. But it is also true of President Obama.

While no president can micromanage every Cabinet department, if Obama really did care about veterans, how is it that in the years between his first use of the issue as a campaign tactic and the moment when it exploded in the media he managed never to do a thing about the issue, even when specifically warned about the “allegations” that Carney claims he didn’t know about?

The lack of confidence in government is a natural response to events like the VA scandal, but it is compounded by a presidential response that makes it clear that Obama doesn’t pay much attention to the issues he raised in his own campaigns and that he is slow to act even after learning about such disasters on television. This scandal makes it clear, if it hadn’t already been so, that the Obama administration has run out of steam, ideas, or even a willingness to pretend that it cares about public opinion. It’s going to be a long slog until January 2017.


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