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Topic: Eric Shinseki

Shinseki’s Ouster Solved Obama’s VA Problem, Not the Country’s

In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.

The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.

But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.

Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.

But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.

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In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.

The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.

But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.

Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.

But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.

Many in the liberal press have reacted to the problems at the VA by blaming the president’s critics or seeking to deflect attention to the stale debates about the decisions to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the New York Times put it in a particularly sour editorial on Shinseki’s resignation on Saturday, the main priority for liberals now is now to defend the existing VA system from those who believe that reform must be structural rather than superficial. At the heart of this issue is a vast federal bureaucracy in which a parallel health-care system for veterans seems to have embraced all the defects of socialized medicine. The VA is a broken model that may well serve as a model for future adventures in government health care that follow ObamaCare if it is allowed to remain in place without fundamental change.

The danger here was never about Republicans politicizing the VA’s misconduct but rather from an approach to the problem that essentially minimized the structural nature of the problems that stem from a vast government agency that no administration has ever been able to fully hold accountable. In the weeks and months that will follow, we will hear increasingly less about the VA but the debate about it should not be allowed to shrink into one about a few individuals or the abilities of the department’s next leader. The country’s VA problem isn’t fixed and won’t be by a piecemeal approach that is more interested in preserving the system that created the scandal than in changing it.

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The Record Versus Obama’s VA Outrage

President Obama spoke to the nation this morning to address the scandal at the Veterans Administration. Adopting a stern and authoritative tone, Obama expressed outrage about the mistreatment of veterans and determination to get to the bottom of the problem. This was entirely appropriate, but coming weeks after the news about widespread misconduct began to seep into the headlines and more than a year after the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to him to bring this issue to his attention, the president’s actions must still be considered too little and too late.

The president’s decision to wait for the Inspector General’s report before making policy decisions is probably wise. Nobody knows just how widespread the cooking of the books at VA institutions has been or how many executives have been gaming the system to generate bonuses for themselves and others or how many wounded or ill veterans have been harmed by being forced to wait because of this misconduct. But we do already know a few salient facts about the way the administration has handled the VA and the scandal. As with every other scandal or catastrophe that has occurred in the last five and a half years, Obama was an absentee head of government who let things slide here despite warnings until the political consequences became clear to him.

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President Obama spoke to the nation this morning to address the scandal at the Veterans Administration. Adopting a stern and authoritative tone, Obama expressed outrage about the mistreatment of veterans and determination to get to the bottom of the problem. This was entirely appropriate, but coming weeks after the news about widespread misconduct began to seep into the headlines and more than a year after the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to him to bring this issue to his attention, the president’s actions must still be considered too little and too late.

The president’s decision to wait for the Inspector General’s report before making policy decisions is probably wise. Nobody knows just how widespread the cooking of the books at VA institutions has been or how many executives have been gaming the system to generate bonuses for themselves and others or how many wounded or ill veterans have been harmed by being forced to wait because of this misconduct. But we do already know a few salient facts about the way the administration has handled the VA and the scandal. As with every other scandal or catastrophe that has occurred in the last five and a half years, Obama was an absentee head of government who let things slide here despite warnings until the political consequences became clear to him.

We know that despite flaunting his supposed concern for veterans since his first presidential campaign in 2008, this commander-in-chief has allowed the agency tasked with their care to be driven into a ditch. We also know that the president seems incapable of holding Cabinet officials or anyone close to him accountable for their incompetence. That Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is, even now, still holding on to his job despite presiding over this mess for years gives the lie to any talk of accountability coming from the president. The fact that the agency attempted to get off the hook by merely firing one of Shinseki’s subordinates was not only proof of how tone deaf the administration is about the importance of this scandal but demonstrated how resistant it is to hold political appointees responsible for their actions.

Even more outrageous was the president’s concern today that no one should use the VA has a “political football.” Using straw men to bolster his rhetorical position is nothing new for this president. But in this instance it is particularly off key since Democrats and Republicans have been lining up this week to express anger about the VA. But the talk of keeping politics out of the discussion isn’t an appeal for bipartisanship so much as it is one focused on avoiding accountability for the man at the top of the government food chain.

Nor is there any indication that Obama or anyone else in this administration is capable of seeing that perhaps the reason for the systemic problems at the VA is the reliance on government health-care institutions burdened by bloated bureaucracies. Given Obama’s almost religious devotion to big government, don’t expect that this president can wrap his brain around the right fix to a problem that may require a complete reform of this system and a switch to a vouchers scheme that would end the spectacle of veterans waiting weeks or months for the health care they need.

For the president to emerge from a meeting about this controversy praising the good services millions get from the VA and speaking of how much Shinseki cares about veterans does nothing to divert the American people from understanding how much Obama has failed as a leader. Nothing said today will enhance the confidence of the public or of veterans that this situation is being handled properly or that the president has the ability to act to stem a crisis in the making. It took him five and a half years to realize that he had to do something more than talk about the need to help veterans. In the meantime, more than 40 died. There’s no telling how many more will suffer and how many other scandals will pop up in the two and a half years he has left in office. But no matter what the total turns out to be, no one should expect anything more than lip service and belated concern from an absentee president.

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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.

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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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Absentee President Is Bad for Veterans’ Health … And the Country’s

What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

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What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

Judging by the statements of both Shinseki and White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough yesterday, this administration seems still to be in a state of denial about the potential implications of the problems of the VA. Splitting hairs on the question of whether the veterans who were kept waiting endlessly for medical services died as a result of the delays or some other reason isn’t the best way to demonstrate concern or a sense of urgency about the problem. Shinseki came across at his Senate hearing as a middle manager with a flatline personality unable to muster much emotion even when he was claiming to be “mad as hell” about the scandal. Both he and McDonough—who was strongly pressed on the issue by CNN’s Jake Tapper—were in denial about the fact that they had ignored complaints and warnings on these abuses for years until it blew up in their faces.

But the point here isn’t so much about the outrageous behavior at the VA which—like the IRS scandal—can’t be blamed on a rogue regional office but is part of a culture of corruption that appears to be systemic. Just as the administration’s reflex action on the IRS, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and any other contentious issue you can think of, the administration’s instinct here is to obfuscate and cover up. The standard practice is to hide the truth no matter what the cause of concern. And even when the public is informed of the problem, the administration goes into its normal damage-control routine that centers on minimizing the damage to them rather than to the public.

Moreover, President Obama’s instinct even on non-partisan problems is to resist making changes in his administration. It is almost as if he thinks it is beneath his dignity to respond to public outrage and that damaged Cabinet officials must keep their jobs in spite of justified calls for their removal rather than because of them.

We can expect that Shinseki will eventually be carefully removed once the furor over the VA dies down much in the same manner of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But by then the damage will have been done, both to ill veterans and to the public’s confidence in their government. Having an absentee president more interested in demonstrating his contempt for critics and establishing that he can’t be pressured is bad for the health of our former soldiers as well as for the republic they bled to defend.

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