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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama thinks a former soap executive can clean house at Veterans Affairs --- why it won't be so easy

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,PennAve,Procter and Gamble

President Obama's reason for tapping a former soap and diaper salesman to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs is rather simple.

"Bob [McDonald] is an expert at making organizations better,” Obama said Monday, when announcing his unorthodox selection to take over the embattled agency.

McDonald led Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crest, Tide and Gillette, between 2009 and 2013.

The top VA post typically goes to a senior military official. And although McDonald graduated from West Point, what Obama's selection proves, more than anything, is that the White House is most concerned with customer satisfaction surveys.

Obama also needs a smooth confirmation process for the man tasked with fixing an agency that made phony wait lists at VA hospitals nationwide and neglected care that reportedly contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans. McDonald, a Republican who donated money to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and other conservatives, seems suited to garner bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Though McDonald was responsible for 120,000 employees during his four years at the helm of P&G, he can’t single-handedly cure what ails an agency overwhelmed by mismanagement and what an internal White House report called a “corrosive culture.”

“McDonald must be empowered to focus on wholesale reforms and timely, quality care rather than simply throwing money at the problem and making superficial changes,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.

Hegseth added that McDonald would have to “use his management experience as a corporate executive to ... bring accountability to calcified bureaucracy that has been allowed to fester without it for too long.”

Easier said than done.

The VA shortcomings exploded under Obama’s watch, but they have plagued multiple administrations.

“The VHA leadership team is not prepared to deliver effective day-to-day management or crisis management,” deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors concluded in a scathing internal assessment of the VA. “[The department is] marked by an inherent lack of responsiveness and a belief many issues raised by the public, the VA leadership, or oversight entities are exaggerated, unimportant, or 'will pass.’ ”

McDonald did not have a spotless record at Procter & Gamble, where shareholders essentially forced him out.

Still, Obama called him “one of our nation’s most accomplished business leaders and managers.”

“He’s no-nonsense; he’s pragmatic; he does not seek the limelight,” the president added of the 61-year-old Indiana native.

The White House is banking that McDonald will bring a corporate approach similar to the one employed by Jeffrey Zients to fix the problem-plagued healthcare.gov website.

But veterans groups said McDonald would not succeed without a systematic overhaul of how the department operates.

“He will need to have complete hiring and firing authority, along with a willingness to see that those who committed illegal acts are prosecuted,” said American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger.

And a badly divided Congress still has yet to unite behind a plan to fix the beleaguered department.

“I’m pleased that Bob McDonald has experience both in the military and as the leader of a large corporation – backgrounds which I believe would serve him well at the helm of the VA,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “But no one person is going to solve all of the VA’s problems – it’s something all of us must continue working on together in the weeks, months and years to come.”

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner