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.