WASHINGTON (AP) — This was not in the Barack Obama playbook.
The resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday did not follow the usual arc of a crisis in the Obama administration.
Obama prefers to not get sucked into a drama and cede in the heat of the moment. He’d rather send in fixers and have the bloodletting occur in due course.
Shinseki, however, tendered his resignation at the height of a political clamor for his departure and as revelations of systemic delays in veterans’ patient care mounted daily. Shinseki left even before the review Obama had ordered of the department’s problems was completed.
For Obama, there was little doubt that his decision to let Shinseki go was painful.
“He is a very good man,” Obama said of the former four-star Army general and Vietnam veteran. “I don’t just mean he’s an accomplished man. I don’t just mean that he’s been an outstanding soldier. He’s a good person who’s done exemplary work on our behalf.”
In this crisis, it became clear to the White House that the solution to the problems identified in news accounts and in a damning report from the VA’s inspector general were endemic and would take time to turn around, let alone correct.
That’s what set it apart the spectacularly bad launch of healthcare.gov.
Kathleen Sebelius stayed on as head of the Department of Health and Human Services until April, seven months after that fumbling start. But that was a website problem caused by poorly designed technology. It was fixable in the short-term and in the end sign-ups exceeded projections.
The path for Shinseki’s exit was laid a week ago when Obama told reporters that if Shinseki “does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.”
On Wednesday, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough notified Obama of the scathing inspector general’s report as Obama flew back on Air Force One from West Point, New York, where he had just delivered a foreign policy address.
The VA inspector general’s report and a preliminary review by Shinseki himself depicted the problems as widespread. The inspector general’s report offered another troubling observation: The issues went back nearly a decade, before Obama’s presidency.
That’s hardly a comfort for Obama and his beleaguered White House.
Obama served on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that reviewed those inspector general studies. He ran for president in 2008 with a promise to improve the delivery of benefits for veterans. His wife has made helping veterans and their families a priority. Last week, Obama called the care of veterans “one of the causes of my presidency.”
What’s more, as Obama brings more than a decade of wars to an end, he has made a point of telling returning soldiers that they deserve the care and benefits of a grateful nation. Those returning servicemen and women, many with physical or mental wounds, have put additional strains on the VA’s health care system.
The inspector general, examining the troubled VA health care system in Phoenix, found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list. That came after allegations that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting care at the agency’s Phoenix facilities.
For a president who lists veterans as a priority, that suggests a massive failure.
Beyond that, the crisis draws attention to another Obama priority — health care. It raises further doubts about the government’s ability to deliver on the president’s principal legislative achievement.
Shinseki’s exit hardly resolves those lingering problems. But it does let the White House, for the moment, turn a page, manage a crisis and quiet an election-year din.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for The Associated Press
Follow Kuhnhenn on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn