President Obama has shown over the last six years that he is by nature reluctant to lop off heads and fire subordinates at the first sign of scandal in their agencies. But Eric Shinseki can take little encouragement from the president's comments Wednesday. Even while praising the embattled secretary of Veterans Affairs, he did seem to be nudging him toward the door.
If there was any doubt that the president is open to the possibility of changed leadership at the VA, White House press secretary Jay Carney dispelled it at his daily briefing when he said that was "a fair reading" of what the president said. If the current allegations prove to be true, said Carney, "There should be consequences. He made that clear to Secretary Shinseki."
At the least, Obama did not rule out the possibility that the secretary may make his own decision to head for the exit. Referring to him informally as "Ric," the president almost seemed to be inviting Shinseki to leave. He said that Shinseki's "attitude is, if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he's let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve." He quickly added that Shinseki "is committed to solving the problem and working with us" on getting to the bottom of the allegations. But that, he said rather ominously, was "at this stage."
Obama: If True, VA Scandal is 'Disgraceful'
There was no similar wiggle room in his public comments the last time a key aide was facing demands for her dismissal. When then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was under fire, the president all-but absolved her of blame for the botched rollout of the health care website, saying in November that she "doesn't write code … she wasn't our IT person." Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett also defended Sebelius, stating that the president "is interested in solutions, not scapegoats."
Since the current allegations surfaced, the president has similarly pleaded for time to let internal investigations play out even as he seems acutely aware of the growing demands for accountability. "I know," he said, "that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts." He pledged that "once we know the facts, I assure you if there is misconduct it will be punished."
The president long has deferred to Shinseki and given him the respect due a four-star general who was wounded in combat, losing part of his foot to a hand grenade in Vietnam. And that praise was there Wednesday. "Ric Shinseki, I think, serves this country because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission," said Obama, who pledged "to do everything in my power, using the resources of the White House, to help that process of getting to the bottom of what happened and fixing it."
But he was very selective in his praise of Shinseki. "Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran, and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki. So, you know, if you ask me, you know, how do I think Ric Shinseki has performed overall, I would say that on homelessness, on the 9/11 GI Bill, on working with us to reduce the backlog across the board, he has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously," said Obama. "But I have said to Ric, and I said it to him today, I want to see, you know, what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability."
Much more than when he talked about Sebelius, the president openly entertained the notion of management mistakes at the VA. Rather bluntly, he declared, "I won't know until the full report is … put forward as to whether there was enough management follow-up to ensure that those folks on the front lines who were doing scheduling had the capacity to meet those goals, if they were being evaluated for meeting goals that were unrealistic and they couldn't meet because either there weren't enough doctors or the systems weren't in place, or what have you."
This article appears in the May 22, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.