In VA scandal, heads won’t roll


Foreign Policy

President Obama attempted to calm the storm quickly enveloping his handling of a growing Veterans Affairs scandal, laying out a logical approach to getting to the bottom of what has gone wrong — seeking reviews, promising to hold individual staffers accountable, and ordering the department’s head, the embattled Eric Shinseki, to give him an initial report next week. The one thing he didn’t do was fire Shinseki or anyone else, and that no heads are rolling means he did little to quiet administration critics — and may have instead created new ones.

The president on Wednesday defended Shinseki, a retired four-star general who has led the VA since 2009, as a “great soldier” who would lead the review into the crisis pertaining to allegations of falsified records and “cooking the books,” as Obama said, at a number of VA healthcare centers. Obama ordered Shinseki to return to him next week with preliminary results of the review of the problem and vowed punishment would come “once we know the facts.”

But Obama dodged questions about whether Shinseki should resign or had offered to.

“Nobody cares about our veterans more than Ric Shinseki,” Obama said in his first press conference devoted to the VA scandal — which centers around allegations that 40 veterans died at a hospital in Phoenix while waiting for care — since it first exploded late last month.

“If you asked me how do I think Ric Shinseki has performed overall, he has put his heart and soul into this thing.”

But Obama’s dutiful respect for the investigatory process on the records scandal is seen by some critics as being overly focused on the issue at hand, and not the broader one that has frustrated critics for several years. And his remarks Wednesday did little to stop the calls for Shinseki to step down or for Obama himself to take ownership of a problem he made a feature of in his 2008 campaign.

Now the Democratic dam supporting Shinseki may be beginning to burst. Two Democratic representatives from Georgia, first John Barrow and then David Scott, called for Shinseki to resign after hearing Obama speak.

“While I don’t think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it’s time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again,” Barrow said in a statement.

Obama seems to have lost the room on veterans issues, even among some groups that have applauded some of the recent accomplishments by the VA. And for a White House already focused on the real prospect of losing Democratic control of the Senate in the upcoming mid-term elections, the scandal risks handing the GOP another political cudgel to use against the administration and its allies this fall.

“He did nothing to quell the growing nationwide VA controversy,” Paul Rieckhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement issued shortly after Obama spoke. Rieckhoff, a respected leader in the veterans community who has worked closely with the administration in the past, called Obama’s remarks a “tremendous disappointment,” but stopped short of asking Shinseki to resign. “His long-overdue remarks gave outraged IAVA members no reason to believe anything will change at the VA anytime soon. The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken.”

And there was more anger from more predictable quarters. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a frequent administration critic, said that Obama’s remarks were “wholly insufficient” in addressing the broader problems at the VA, which he termed “fundamental and systemic.”

McCain said in a statement, “We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we’ve seen from the Obama Administration to date.”

No one ever thought that the problems at the VA — from reducing the backlog of veterans’ disability claims to creating enough capacity there to handle the influx of millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, could be fixed overnight. But Shinseki, the recipient of two Purple Hearts during tours in Vietnam, was seen at the time as the perfect man for the job. His profile appealed to the Obama White House in 2009 as someone who would speak truth to power. The general is best known for telling a Congressional panel in the run-up to the Iraq War in early 2003 that the United States would need far more troops than what then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was planning to send.

But despite Shinseki’s appealing narrative, his tenure at the VA has been spotty. While he’s reduced the backlog of veteran claims as well as attempted to address veteran unemployment rates and homelessness, he has largely failed in the public terrain, passing on media appearances and generally working behind the scenes when most observers agree a higher public profile is called for.

That has led to a growing push for his resignation. Democrats on Capitol Hill have generally been mum on the issue and retired senior officers typically decline to get involved in what amounts to a politically charged issue for the Obama White House.

Supporters of the administration’s approach to fixing the problems at the VA point to how large a bureaucracy it is and how hard it is to change. But Sen. Mark Begich, the Democrat from Alaska and a member of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a brief interview with Foreign Policy that pushing the VA’s massive bureaucracy to address its broader problems is possible. In Alaska, it has produced results and provided better access to medical services by reducing backlogs and wait times, he said. To Begich, it’s not so much whether firing Shinseki would send a strong signal about how seriously the administration is taking the issue. There’s only one way to do that, he said.

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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