Up to now, President Obama and congressional Democrats had thought “so-called” scandals involving Benghazi, the IRS, and Operation Fast and Furious were largely behind them. Nothing to see, just Republican witch hunts designed to embarrass the president and perhaps land blows against Hillary Clinton. But recent revelations about shoddy care at Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities across the country have brought bipartisan condemnation from Capitol Hill that should worry a commander in chief whose reaction to the brewing tempest has been muted at best.
What is most surprising about the present controversy surrounding the substandard treatment at the VA, in which at least 40 veterans lost their lives while awaiting treatment, is that House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) had alerted the president to trouble nearly a year ago. In a letter dated May 21, 2013, Miller began:
Dear Mr. President: I am writing to bring to your attention an alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMCs) across the country. Recent events at the Atlanta, Georgia, VAMC provide a perfect illustration of the management failures, deceptions, and lack of accountability permeating VA’s healthcare system…I believe your direct involvement and leadership is required.
A year on from Chairman Miller’s letter, the revelations of substandard care, neglect, and waste seem to have magnified, rather than been reduced. For a president who seems to have endless amounts of time to talk about the miseries of those living on the minimum wage, Obama’s seeming indifference to the severity of the problems faced by our returning veterans seeking care at VA facilities is shocking.
Late last week, CNN’s Jake Tapper grilled White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on the lackluster attempts by the administration to address mismanagement issues—if not criminally negligent behavior—at the VA. What I found revealing about the interview is the exchange where Tapper questions whether Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is up to the task at hand given that Miller warned the president a year ago about serious allegations of misconduct at the agency:
Jake Tapper: How many stories like this, how many letters like this, how many dead veterans do you need before someone asks the question within the White House maybe this guy isn’t the best steward of these veterans?
Denis McDonough: The question, Jake, is are we doing everything we can every day to get the veterans the care and opportunities that they…
Jake Tapper: … But you’re not, this letter was sent a year ago and you guys ignored it.
Thus far, President Obama and his team have regarded the scandalous treatment of veterans seeking care from the government over which they preside as a political hiccup rather than an indefensible breakdown in competent management that has led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans. Late last week, McDonough assured us that Obama is “madder than hell” about the VA fiasco.
Please. We’ve seen the president show genuine flashes of anger toward the GOP in general, the Supreme Court following rulings he disagrees with, and anyone else who has the temerity to disagree with him on anything. In the present case Obama has largely been silent, absent, and behind closed doors—content to let Secretary Shinseki and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney bear the brunt of the growing storm in the media.
What is most shocking to me about the VA tempest is that it repeats a pattern of conduct we’ve seen from the president and his administration. Obama ran for president and asked Americans to hire him for another term based on his leadership skills, temperament, and ability to produce results. Instead, we’ve seen the president and his team evade responsibility (and with a tiresome frequency) for areas in which they are directly responsible, parse words in an attempt to mislead, and otherwise duck long enough for the political storm of the moment to pass over for sunnier days ahead.
Not this time. Americans of all political persuasions stand in solidarity behind those brave men and women who don the uniform to defend us from those who seek to harm our country and our allies. My Daily Beast colleague Jacob Siegel exclusively revealed that the VA facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico is only the latest hospital to keep secret waiting lists—and to destroy documents revealing criminal misconduct.
A real leader stands up, accepts responsibility, and moves swiftly to fix management problems. A coward blames others, fails to accept responsibility, and reveals himself as small and not up to the duty and obligation to those he was elected to serve. The American people will discover in short order whether the president steps up to lead our returning heroes in the military to ensure they receive the medical care they have earned or whether he cowers to serve his political ambitions rather than accept responsibility. If he does the former, he will be justly applauded—if he does the latter the American people will be madder than hell at him for failing our veterans when they needed him the most. If Obama’s past actions are any indication of what we can expect he’ll do to resolve the scandalous mismanagement at the VA, I believe his standing with the American people will continue to erode to due to his failure to lead decisively.