Some Washington insiders expected President Obama to announce the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki after the two men met in the Oval Office this morning. Yet even with the VA hospitals scandal gathering momentum each day, Obama chose to keep Shinseki in place. Why?
There are several reasons. First, Shinseki is a decorated veteran himself, a retired four-star general and former Army Chief of Staff who was seriously wounded in Vietnam. Members of Congress, and all Americans for that matter, view that record with respect. Second, heading the VA is a tough and unglamorous job, and finding a good candidate to replace Shinseki will not be easy; it's not something Obama wants to do if he doesn't have to. And third, even if a top-tier candidate agreed to take the job, cleaning up the VA mess will be a difficult task given federal government personnel rules that make it virtually impossible for the secretary to fire workers involved in the scandal.
But there's another reason Shinseki is hard for the president to dismiss. The retired general has for years been a particular hero to Obama's supporters on the left for his conflict with the George W. Bush administration during the run-up to the war in Iraq.
In early 2003, as the U.S. was planning the invasion, Shinseki angered his superiors in the Pentagon and White House by saying he believed victory and post-war stabilization in Iraq would require far more U.S. troops than President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were planning to deploy. "Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required," Shinseki told Congress in February 2003.
Shinseki was criticized, even vilified, for his position. Pushed away from the center of Pentagon power, he retired a few months later, in June 2003.
The Bush administration went ahead with its plan to invade Iraq with a significantly smaller force than Shinseki recommended. Later, when Iraq collapsed into chaos, some of the war's strongest supporters conceded Shinseki had been correct. "We never had enough troops to begin with," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told the New York Times in 2007. "A month or two ago we found out the Army is broken, and they agreed that General Shinseki was right."
By that time, Shinseki had become a legend to anti-war liberals, and all the more so by December 2008, when President-Elect Obama was choosing his cabinet. "By tapping Mr. Shinseki to run the VA, [Obama] has provided a sop to the left," wrote the lefty blogger Steve Kornacki, now an MSNBC personality, when Shinseki's appointment was announced. A poster at the leftist website DailyKos had a shorter reaction: "Hallelujah!" Even though Shinseki was not chosen for the military policy position some had hoped for him, the reaction to his appointment showed the enduring gratitude of many on the anti-war left.
Now Shinseki is presiding over a debacle at the nation's VA hospitals. On Capitol Hill, there is bipartisan condemnation of the agency's performance under the retired general. Showing belated concern for a growing scandal, Obama hastily set a White House meeting with Shinseki for Wednesday morning. Afterward, rather than announcing Shinseki's resignation, Obama said the VA secretary "has been a great public servant and a great warrior on the behalf of the United States. … We're going to work with him to solve the problem."
So Shinseki is still in the job. And of the reasons Obama had not to sack him, one is credibility with Obama's party earned by opposing George W. Bush more than a decade ago.