Commentary Magazine


Topic: Veterans Administration

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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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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Memo to the White House: Check Out YouTube

As the health-care debate approached a climax in the Senate a few weeks ago, it became widely noted that the negotiations were going on behind closed doors, even though as a candidate, Obama had promised numerous times to put those negotiations on C-Span. His campaign promises were all over YouTube, but White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs refused even to discuss questions about the discrepancy.

Now, it seems the Obama administration is at it again. The lead story in today’s New York Times reports that Obama will call for a freeze on discretionary spending (excepting military spending, the Veterans Administration, homeland security, and foreign aid). Guess what his opinion of a spending freeze was during the campaign?

And the spending freeze he proposes would save what? Nick Gillespie at Reason, estimates, at most, $15 billion in fiscal year 2011. Compare that to the $1.4 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2009.

This is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called “boob bait for bubbas.” The people have made it abundantly clear (as in last week’s Massachusetts Senate election) that they regard federal spending as out of control. So the Obama administration will toss the public a bone, knowing that it will be meaningless in size and easily evaded with special appropriations and other budget gimmicks.

The sheer cynicism is breathtaking, if not unexpected at this point. What is unexpected in this self-proclaimed post-modern administration is that Obama and his staff don’t seem to have realized yet that YouTube has changed everything. Yesterday’s newspapers, notoriously, were used to wrap fish, their content forgotten. Today’s news clip lives forever on the Internet.

As the health-care debate approached a climax in the Senate a few weeks ago, it became widely noted that the negotiations were going on behind closed doors, even though as a candidate, Obama had promised numerous times to put those negotiations on C-Span. His campaign promises were all over YouTube, but White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs refused even to discuss questions about the discrepancy.

Now, it seems the Obama administration is at it again. The lead story in today’s New York Times reports that Obama will call for a freeze on discretionary spending (excepting military spending, the Veterans Administration, homeland security, and foreign aid). Guess what his opinion of a spending freeze was during the campaign?

And the spending freeze he proposes would save what? Nick Gillespie at Reason, estimates, at most, $15 billion in fiscal year 2011. Compare that to the $1.4 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2009.

This is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called “boob bait for bubbas.” The people have made it abundantly clear (as in last week’s Massachusetts Senate election) that they regard federal spending as out of control. So the Obama administration will toss the public a bone, knowing that it will be meaningless in size and easily evaded with special appropriations and other budget gimmicks.

The sheer cynicism is breathtaking, if not unexpected at this point. What is unexpected in this self-proclaimed post-modern administration is that Obama and his staff don’t seem to have realized yet that YouTube has changed everything. Yesterday’s newspapers, notoriously, were used to wrap fish, their content forgotten. Today’s news clip lives forever on the Internet.

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