White House

Quiz: How Dumb Does Obama Think We Are?

The Veterans Affairs policy fiasco is magnified by an insulting public-relations strategy.

White House press secretary Jay Carney pauses to listen to a question during his daily news briefing Jan. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
May 20, 2014, 3:58 a.m.

News quiz: Pres­id­ent Obama and his com­mu­nic­a­tions team hope that Amer­ic­ans are: 1) Dumb; 2) Dis­trac­ted; 3) Numb to gov­ern­ment in­ef­fi­ciency; 4) All of above.

An­swer: 4, all of the above.

That an­swer along with ut­ter in­com­pet­ence are the best ex­plan­a­tions for why the White House thought it could get away with claim­ing that the de­par­ture of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs of­fi­cial Robert Pet­zel was a step to­ward ac­count­ab­il­ity for its scan­dal­ous treat­ment of war vet­er­ans.

Fact is, the de­part­ment an­nounced in 2013 that Dr. Pet­zel would re­tire this year.

“Well, Sec­ret­ary Shin­seki ac­cep­ted Dr. Pet­zel’s resig­na­tion this af­ter­noon. He was due to re­tire early next month, and ob­vi­ously there has been a nom­in­a­tion made for his re­place­ment,” White House Chief of Staff Den­nis Mc­Donough told CBS’s Ma­jor Gar­rett last week. “I leave to Rick the ex­plan­a­tion of his de­cision, but there is no ques­tion that this is a ter­min­a­tion of his job there be­fore he was plan­ning to go.”

No. This was neither a ter­min­a­tion nor a house­clean­ing. It was a scape­goat­ing. For all of its 21st-cen­tury savvy in the field of cam­paign tech­no­logy, the Obama White House has re­peatedly proven that its com­mu­nic­a­tions philo­sophy is stuck in the 20th cen­tury. Be­fore the In­ter­net gave voters in­stant­an­eous ac­cess to in­form­a­tion, in­clud­ing every pub­lic ut­ter­ance of the pres­id­ent and his team, White House strategists could hope to wear out the truth: If you said a lie enough, people might be­lieve it.

It’s harder to BS the pub­lic these days. White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney still tries. On Monday, he re­peatedly sug­ges­ted that the Amer­ic­an Le­gion had praised the move.

“The Amer­ic­an Le­gion said that the group looks at Pet­zel’s resig­na­tion as a, quote, step to­wards ad­dress­ing the lead­er­ship prob­lem at the VA. So I think that un­der­cuts the as­ser­tion that that is not a mean­ing­ful de­vel­op­ment.”

Car­ney cited the Amer­ic­an Le­gion nine times dur­ing the brief­ing.

Un­for­tu­nately for Car­ney and his boss, ABC’s in­trep­id White House cor­res­pond­ent Jonath­an Karl has ac­cess to the In­ter­net. “It turns out, however, the Amer­ic­an Le­gion had is­sued a state­ment dis­miss­ing the resig­na­tion as ‘busi­ness as usu­al,’ ” Karl wrote.

The state­ment calls for the re­mov­al of VA Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki, whose fir­ing would ac­tu­ally be a meas­ure of ac­count­ab­il­ity.  Writes Karl:

When asked about the dis­crep­ancy, the White House poin­ted ABC News to art­icles in The Wash­ing­ton Times and USA Today that pos­ted on Fri­day and quoted Amer­ic­an Le­gion of­fi­cials call­ing the resig­na­tion a “step to­wards ad­dress­ing the lead­er­ship prob­lem at the VA.”

The of­fi­cial quoted, spokes­man John Raughter, ac­know­ledged say­ing it was a step for­ward but not much of a step.

“It was a small step,” Raughter told ABC News. “It was go­ing to hap­pen any­way. So, I sup­pose it was bet­ter than if he had stayed on the job.”

Was Raughter sug­gest­ing the prob­lems at the VA had been ad­dressed in a sig­ni­fic­ant way?

“Not at all,” he said. “We feel there is a cul­tur­al change that needs to be made.”

In Obama’s de­fense, he in­her­ited a dys­func­tion­al VA, and the agency has been over­whelmed by vet­er­ans re­turn­ing from two wars he is wind­ing down. But he pledged to re­form the VA after blast­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2007. In­stead of get­ting bet­ter, the health care bur­eau­cracy has worsened and be­come cor­rup­ted. Long delays are covered up and vet­er­ans are dy­ing while await­ing care.

It’s a policy trav­esty mag­ni­fied by an in­sult­ing pub­lic re­la­tions strategy.


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