Topics: Veterans Affairs

Obama's crisis management: Duck, deny, get outside fixer

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,IRS,Benghazi,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Eric Shinseki,Magazine

President Obama's response to the swirling scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs has followed a predictable pattern.

Halfway into his second term, the president seems to have developed his own crisis-management playbook.

Step 1: Avoid getting any skin in the game for as long as possible. Allow Cabinet members to take the heat in headlines and congressional hearings.

Step 2: Have White House press secretary Jay Carney repeatedly express confidence in the Cabinet secretary caught up in the controversy. Rinse and repeat for days, weeks or months.

Step 3: When public attention reaches a tipping point, have White House officials speak out on the Sunday shows, conveying the president's outrage and commitment to solve the problem.

Step 4: Make a public statement, expressing anger and asking the public for patience while an internal review is conducted.

Step 5: Bring in a fixer from inside the White House or outside government to solve the problem while leaving existing staff nominally in charge.

The scandal-management playbook of keeping problems at arm’s length predates Obama. To varying degrees, most modern presidents have followed a similar approach.

But some presidential scholars say Obama has pushed it to a new level.

“The first instinct with any White House, but especially this White House is to shield the president from any problems that might arise for as long as possible,” said Richard Benedetto, a former White House Correspondent for USA Today who covered four presidents and now teaches political science and journalism at American University.

Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University's Kalikow Center for the Study of the Presidency, said Obama's responses to crises over the last few years is “a problem for an administration that prides itself on competence.”

In 2008, Obama set out to be a transformational president — “to offer change we can believe in,” she said. When he couldn't significantly change Washington, he began defining himself as a “transactional president" who was competent.

“But a series of revelations -- the botched healthcare.gov, the problems with the VA and the IRS -- reflect real shortcomings,” she said.

The way Obama has handled the VA crisis — to wait for for more than a year after the first critical stories surfaced, then allow VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to take a beating on Capitol Hill, before ordering an investigation, appointing White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to help manage the problem and then make a public statement — is a pattern Obama has repeated several times in recent years.

The White House followed a similar script last fall when healthcare.gov crashed and burned. After Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was buffeted for weeks in the press and on Capitol Hill, Obama expressed anger during a press conference in the Rose Garden.

While urging patience, he tapped Jeffrey Zients, a former budget official, to lead a “tech surge” to fix the website before a hand-off to former Microsoft exec Kurt DelBene.

One exception was the handling of the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, which came as Obama was running for re-election.

In that case, Obama made a statement in the Rose Garden the next day, much faster than in other moments of crisis.

He also moved more quickly on the Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal in 2013, making a public statement on how “angry” he was just six days after IRS supervisor Lois Lerner admitted giving certain groups extra scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status.

Attorney General Eric Holder then opened a criminal probe into the matter that has yet to find anyone responsible.

Steven Kelman, a professor of public management at Harvard, suggested that Obama could avoid similar problems if he imposed a new auditing system and performance measurements at all executive-branch departments “resembling private-sector accounting.”

But Benedetto says Obama's tendency to slow-walk his response to scandals shows a much broader problem.

“Every White House wants to put its best face forward, but the fact of the matter is there used to be a sign on Harry Truman's desk 'the buck stops here,' ” he said. “President Obama wants to pretend that it doesn't.”

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