Heads Won’t Roll

Obama’s talking tough about the VA scandal, so why isn’t he firing anyone?

Win McNamee/Getty
Win McNamee/Getty
Win McNamee/Getty



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 lawmakers 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 which 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 U.S. 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.

Still, there are others who are quick to defend Shinseki for his handling of the records scandal. Former Senator Max Cleland, who himself ran the VA under then-President Jimmy Carter, wrote in Politico this week that "we veterans need facts, not a firing."

And Norton Schwartz, the retired four-star general and former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said Shinseki is "no slouch" and will not be timid in making changes if the allegations about false records are found to be true. "My view knowing him as I do is that he is a man of high ethics and standards, and I can only imagine that he is just pained by this because he is also a man of obligation," Schwartz said in an interview.

Removing Shinseki might be the wrong thing to do at this point, he said. It could be hard for the White House to find a new VA chief in its second term, and changing horses midstream could do more damage than good.

"The dilemma here is, do you want a symbolic action or one that gives you the best opportunity for a remedy," he said. "I’m inclined to do the latter."

Obama appeared before reporters at the White House just as the records scandal widened. The number of VA medical facilities now under investigations over complaints that records were falsified or because of long waiting lists has more than doubled in the last week. The VA’s Inspector General said yesterday that 26 facilities are being examined nationwide. And now there are reports indicating that at least two individuals at the heart of the problems in Phoenix were given bonuses at the same time they were under investigation by the Inspector General.

Also Wednesday, the House is expected to vote on legislation that would give Shinseki more authority to demand accountability from his hospital directors and other executives in an effort that was in motion before the scandal broke. But the administration – including Shinseki – doesn’t like the legislation because of fears that it would make it hard to attract good employees to the VA. "What I want to be sure of is that we are not causing folks who might want to come work for VA to choose not to do so," Shinseki said after a hearing last week. "We need their talent and we need their expertise. If people stop coming to VA because they think we’re heavy-handed on everything, then veterans in the long run are the ones who suffer the impact of that."

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 De
mocrat 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.

"Fix the problem."



Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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