Eric Shinseki exit marks a course shift for Obama
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
May 30, 2014 01:09 PM EDT
Rather than being out ahead of the outrage over the Veterans Affairs situation, President Barack Obama was behind.
Rather than firing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Obama accepted his resignation “with considerable regret.”
And rather than blaming the systemic mismanagement and misconduct at VA health facilities for the decision, he attributed the decision to agreeing with Shinseki’s “belief that he would be a distraction from the task at hand.”
(PHOTOS: Eric Shinseki's life and career)
In other words: the politics and optics of the moment forced his hand, not the misconduct or mismanagement.
“He’s not adverse to admitting where there’s a problem and going after it,” Obama said, speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room on Friday morning. “But we occupy not just an environment that calls for management fixes. We’ve also got to deal with Congress and you guys, and I think it was Ric’s judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself.”
Obama made the announcement after an Oval Office meeting with Shinseki — their first conversation in over a week — in which the secretary and Rob Nabors, the deputy chief of staff the president has assigned to lead changes at the VA, presented the initial draft of the internal audit the president ordered last month.
The audit found at least one instance of misconduct in 64 percent of the VA facilities examined, though it did not determine whether these cases were the result of “lack of understanding or mal-intent unless it was clearly apparent.”
The results, Obama said, were “totally unacceptable,” and Shinseki would first oversee the firing of several VA staff members involved.
“What they found is that the misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities, but many across the country,” he said, though adding later that none of what’s been discovered was known to him or Shinseki previously.
Nonetheless, Shinseki becomes the highest-profile member of the Obama administration to be forced out — a major departure for Obama, who has consistently stuck by aides in crisis.
(Also on POLITICO: Boehner: Resignation 'changes nothing')
But Obama struggled to explain why he’d decided to accept Shinseki, given the scope of the problems he described and his decision not to accept the resignation offered by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the height of the Healthcare.gov meltdown last fall.
Then, he said, Sebelius leaving the administration would have been “a distraction.”
“In each instance, my primary decision is based on how can I deliver service to the American people, and in this case, how can I deliver for our veterans,” Obama said.
Asked how Sloan Gibson, the deputy VA secretary confirmed just three months ago, will have the expertise in the agency to make the massive changes he’s called for, Obama said that for now there’s a more contained matter to deal with. They’ll get to the overhaul — but in the meantime, Obama said, the VA has to reach out to veterans in need of care and expedite their care, and focus on things like making sure there are enough doctors to handle the care.
“Those are things that don’t require rocket science. It requires execution. It requires discipline. It requires focus,” Obama said. “Those are things that Sloan has.”
From the beginning, this scandal was different: a CNN report revealed efforts to conceal the extent of the backlog processing veteran’s health claims at a facility in Phoenix, casting doubt on the success often touted over the past year by Shinseki and the White House about VA efforts cutting the backlog in half. CNN’s report cited up to 40 veterans’ deaths as attributable to not being seen in time at health facilities, with thousands more left waiting for care while VA officials racked up bonuses by appearing to move cut the backlog.
Heading into the midterms, the GOP has been trying to use the controversy as the latest reminder of what they say is a dysfunctional, failed Obama administration — which they’re looking to hang on Democratic Senate and House candidates across the country.
The situation proved particularly problematic for the president. After making veterans’ care a major issue in his 2008 campaign and a central theme of his presidency since, he was caught, five-and-a-half years in, acknowledging that his efforts had been a flop — that he’d been either misinformed or under-informed about just how far reality was from his expectations.
And the political damage was spreading. Already the scandal had obscured the kickoff of Obama’s big spring foreign policy tour, including his surprise trip to Afghanistan Sunday, his announcement about his multi-phase plan to end that war, and his commencement address to West Point graduates Wednesday morning where he tried to lay out his broader philosophy for his remaining time in office.
Every shot of cheering troops was overshadowed by talk of the troops left waiting for care, every speech listened to largely for references to the scandal. He faced that same situation ahead of him at the 70th anniversary D-Day ceremony in Normandy he’s set to attend next week, the centerpiece of a trip to Poland, France and Belgium to continue his pro-Europe PR tour.
The VA hospital revelations, plus long-boiling frustration with VA in both houses of Congress among members in both parties, could mean an intense confirmation process for any nominee. That, combined with the evident scarcity of people willing to step in from the outside to take over the VA, means the White House could ask Gibson to stay on as an interim secretary until the end of the administration.
There are already three other pending Cabinet nominations in the queue.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Shinseki’s resignation “fitting,” and said he has high expectations that go well beyond the replacement.
“This change of leadership is a meaningful initial step to meet our solemn obligations, but what’s still needed is an agreement by the president and his allies in Congress to join Republicans in legislation that would help to fix this system that has so failed our veterans,” McConnell said in a statement.
Shinseki’s exit, meanwhile, marks the second time he’s left an administration under attack.
A retired general who lost part of his right foot in Vietnam, Shinseki rose to public prominence — and eventually a spot in Obama’s orbit — thanks to one of the most pointed disputes between a uniformed American commander and his civilian leaders.
In February 2003, Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he estimated the Army would need “several hundred thousand soldiers” to occupy Iraq after the initial invasion – a number more than twice the official public estimate of the George W. Bush administration.
The Pentagon officials of that era immediately fired back — Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz went to a House hearing later the same week, calling predictions of higher troop needs “wildly off the mark.”
History leans toward Shinseki’s take – the U.S. had sent far too few troops to occupy Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s military was defeated, but also had done virtually no preparation for the long term “stability operation” that Iraq became. Shinseki retired in June 2003, clearly out of favor with the Bush administration, but continued to sound the alarm about what he viewed as an insufficient force for the mission.
His exit now — amid complaints he failed to sound the alarm as effectively or consistently on the VA’s problems as he had on the war — won’t end complaints about the system’s shortcomings.
On Friday, Obama issued what amounted to a challenge to his critics: the problems at the VA and its health facilities are entrenched, he said. Fixing them will require a change of culture, a massive update of technology and likely more staff. That means more attention, and likely more money. Obama said he and Shinseki have tried to fix them and will continue to, knocking those who pay “lip service” to veterans and “not be willing to put our money where our mouth is.”
“What I can say confidently is that this has been a priority, it’s been a priority reflected in my budget, and that in terms of managing the VA, where we have seen a problem, where we have been aware of a problem, we have gone after it and fixed and been able to make significant progress,” Obama said.
Within the White House, Obama and his aides pride themselves on tackling malfunctioning government bureaucracies, quickly and decisively fixing the problems and moving on to the next one. For all the problems with Healthcare.gov, ultimately, that was just the website portion of a much more extensive law, and one that they were able to get fixed. For all the problems at the Department of Energy around the BP oil spill in 2010, the well got capped, the cleanup happened, and the Minerals Management Service was reformed.
The VA problems are, as Obama has said, much deeper, much more entrenched, and — with or without Shinseki — can’t be fixed quickly. Now they’ll have to be fixed while administration and congressional inquiries continue — along with the heightened scrutiny likely to accompany new confirmation hearings.