POLITICS: PennAve

Why Obama's Veterans Affairs problems just got worse

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,National Security,PennAve,Veterans,Eric Shinseki

After waiting more than three weeks, President Obama took to the podium Wednesday to tackle the Department of Veterans Affairs outrage threatening his administration.

When he left the stage, however, Obama may have worsened the political headache caused by allegations of cooked books, backlogs of disability claims and deaths at VA hospitals.

As he has done with other embattled appointees, Obama defended Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, promising future action pending completion of an internal investigation.

While the president often mocks Washington's incessant calls for political scalps, his status-quo response put the White House in a bigger bind than during other scandals.

Here’s why:

Heads still haven’t rolled

Obama on Wednesday took a pass on his highest-profile opportunity to fire those at the center of the VA controversy.

Forcing out Shinseki, a retired four-star general, comes with pitfalls. But even some Democrats, in addition to a multitude of veterans groups, accused the president of misplaced loyalty.

“The first person we need to fire is the secretary of Veterans Affairs,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said from the House floor Wednesday.

“I respect his sacrifice — I respect what he did,” Scott added of Shinseki. “But it’s under his watch that we’re in this situation in the [veterans] hospital … I was very disappointed with President Obama today.”

He wasn’t alone.

“While I don't think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it's time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again," said fellow Georgia Democratic Rep. John Barrow.

Other analysts said the cost of keeping Shinseki far outweighs the benefit.

“If ever a president could benefit from firing somebody, it’s Obama,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

“We don’t expect a president to know everything that’s going on in their administration,” he added. “But we do judge them for the actions they take once they learn of a problem.”

The White House was eager to point to the resignation last week of Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s top health official. But Petzel was already planning to retire this year, undercutting the White House’s claims of accountability.

Bipartisan outrage

Unlike the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups or the administration's response to the September 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the VA shortcomings are drawing condemnation from both parties.

And Obama can’t use one of his favorite political techniques: painting Republicans as politically hungry extremists.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Sabato said. “This is bureaucratic incompetence and fraud.”

Rather than condemn well-documented wrongdoing, Obama continues to allude to the possibility of malfeasance, putting him at odds with lawmakers and veterans groups demanding a more forceful response from the White House.

And although Democrats have been more willing to give Obama time to address an issue that has plagued multiple administrations, some progressives were caught off guard by how little tangible progress the president reported on Wednesday.

“I don’t get why he took three weeks to give that speech,” said one Democratic pollster. “There really wasn’t anything new. This is a real liability. People are furious about this.”

The media spotlight isn’t fading

Part of the reason that Obama’s silence on the VA allegations was so conspicuous is that the problems have become a fixture in the news.

The Washington Examiner weeks ago reported that more than 1.5 million medical records were destroyed at veterans hospitals without proof that patients received any medical care. Another Examiner investigation found that medical appointments were purged at facilities in Los Angeles and Dallas to make the backlogs look smaller.

However, the issue largely remained off the front page.

But then with allegations of 40 deaths linked to failings at a VA hospital in Phoenix, media outlets, conservative-and-liberal-leaning alike, made the delays in medical treatment the issue of the moment.

And the story isn’t lacking for new sources of outrage.

The VA's inspector general said this week that 26 VA hospitals are being investigated for treatment delays and falsifying records. That number is likely to grow, effectively ensuring the VA problems become a national issue.

It reinforces concerns about Obama's leadership

Republicans already had plenty of ammunition to paint Obama as a detached leader, with the botched rollout of the president's signature health law.

Conservatives also point to the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, the administration's response to the Benghazi attack and revelations about National Security Agency surveillance techniques as proof that Obama is too often in the dark about his own executive branch.

The VA setbacks offer a tailor-made question for political ads: If veterans can’t trust the feds to deliver medical care, why should voters have faith in the government to do anything?

And the VA problems, coupled with other controversies, could strengthen negative public opinion of the president’s commander-in-chief capabilities.

“It will obviously be on the minds of veterans and their families,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “And for other voters, it fits into a pattern of mismanagement. It’s the weight of all these issues colliding at once.”

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