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
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4957) }}

What We're Following See More »
These (Supposed) Iowa and NH Escorts Tell All
8 hours ago

Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:

  • Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
  • Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
  • They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
  • One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
Restoring Some Sanity to Encryption
8 hours ago

No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”

What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
8 hours ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Hillary Is Running Against the Bill of 1992
8 hours ago

The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”

Trevor Noah Needs to Find His Voice. And Fast.
9 hours ago

At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”