Commentary Magazine


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.

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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