There’s a well-worn Obama playbook: Let conservative critics burn hot, put off decisions during a fact-finding mission, quietly set up a procedure that starts to tackle the problems. Count on his allies on the Hill to have his back. And definitely, definitely don’t appear to be cowed into firing people.
Not this time.
This week saw Democrats, faced with evidence of the misconduct at VA health facilities and the political radioactivity of a scandal involving injured veterans, start rushing to get ahead of even Republicans calling for Shinseki to go, leaving the White House struggling to explain what the president was waiting for…
For a White House used to dismissing scandals as partisan slime-slinging, this is new territory.
It was clear Eric Shinseki had to resign, oh… two weeks ago, wasn’t it? All the mitigating realities—that GOP congresses cut funding for Veterans Affairs, that the VA always has big problems, that it did other good things on his watch, and so on—may be true. But they don’t change the bottom-line fact that the scandal was real and horrible, and it was happening in the agency he ran.
I yearn for an America where people in positions of leadership actually take actual responsibility for their actual failures. This applies to Shinseki in the current case but also to our entire litigious ass-covering culture, both public and private sectors (the private sector is in fact far, far worse in this way; half the gonefs who sent the country into near-Depression are still making billions). Shinseki is an honorable patriot who’s been smeared unjustly in the past (more on that later). But here, he should have just stood up two weeks ago and said: “Yep, I did a bad job running the VA. I’m really sorry. It’s time for me to leave.”
And, of course, President Obama should have acted sooner. The only thing that the delay of the inevitable accomplished was to give Republicans two weeks in which to repeat and repeat and repeat the criticisms that he’s aloof and out of touch and that he doesn’t care about the military.
Despite long-running problems, the VA has fired a grand total of three senior executives for performance in the last five years—one-fourth the federal average for terminations. Last year, the Office of Personnel Management disclosed that about 0.47 percent of the federal workforce was terminated for cause, considerably below the 3 percent fired in the private sector. In 2011, USA Today reported that in at least 15 federal agencies, employees were more likely to die of natural causes than be terminated in any given year. It’s not uncommon for federal agencies that employ thousands of people to go an entire year without firing a single employee. Meanwhile, the average federal employee made $126,141 in pay and benefits in 2012, more than double the private sector average.
On an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 390-33, the House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would give the VA greater authority to fire or demote senior executives for performance. The additional firing flexibility would apply only to the top 360 supervisors out of more than 340,000 employees at the VA. Even so, the bill has been blocked in the Senate by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. “Some of us are old-fashioned enough to know that maybe folks in the Senate might want to know what is in the bill before we voted on it,” he said. It’s much more likely that Sanders and allied Democrats are so influenced by donations from powerful federal employee unions that, even in face of fatal negligence, they are going to the mat for a few hundred employees out of a federal workforce of more than two million.
“This is a core competency question for the White House,” Cantor, the House majority leader, said in an interview with POLITICO Thursday. “And, as I have said before, this president seems to be in many areas in over his head. There are lots of issues of competency that are being raised right now about what’s going on in this government.”…
“I want to hear what the president has to say,” an irate Cantor said on Thursday. “This is a huge problem. One resignation — as I said before — 100 resignations may not solve the problem that we’re trying to get to for the millions of veterans. Where is the president? The buck stops at the president. Clearly Shinseki is not doing a good job, OK? It’s unacceptable what’s going on at the VA. Where’s the president on this? Why isn’t he taking ownership?”…
This isn’t all about politics. The House Republican leadership says they believe the problems at the VA are broad — one aide said they don’t know where their probe should even begin.
“I wish that the President had been more aggressive since minute one to go in and fix it himself, because what’s happened there is a disgrace,” Christie said in a brief interview on Friday, hours after Shinseki met with the President and stepped down from his post…
“More importantly than the resignation, he should be in rolling up his sleeves and trying to put a stop to it,” Christie said. “That’s more than just saying you’re angry and getting resignations.”
But the president is an executive, and executives manage. They set a tone, establish accountability, light fires, remind those to whom authority is delegated who’s boss. They set expectations and standards. “If you can’t cut it, you’re out.”
Mr. Obama has never seemed that interested in the management of government. It is completely believable that he read about the VA scandal in the newspapers, where he has learned of other administration scandals. It is believable he had no idea what was going on in a major, problem-plagued agency.
Making sure that things work doesn’t seem to be his conception of his job. Words are his job. He argues for a bill, the bill becomes a program, and someone else will make it work. He talks about health care for three years, it debuts with a terrible crash, and he’s shocked. Why didn’t it work? He told it to! His background was one of some privation, but as an executive he acts like a man who grew up with 10 maids. Let them do it, I’m too busy thinking.
Mr. Obama said, when he first ran for president in 2008, that the VA system was a mess and he’d clean it up. It has gotten worse under his watch. He must be shocked. He told it to get better! He said the words!
It is no surprise that, the day before he resigned, the VA’s General Shinseki conceded simultaneously that the problems at the Veterans Administration were national and systemic but that the best way to address them was to fire officials in the places that have made the news. That, after all, is the Obama way. If something goes wrong, it’s always the fault of a low-level official in a faraway town; of recalcitrant Republican legislators; or, more often than not, of unhinged ire based upon “phony” claims. Explaining to Chris Matthews what went wrong with the rollout of his health-care legislation, Obama suggested that the trouble was “not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization” but that “we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.” “Frankly,” the president continued, “there are a lot of members of Congress who are chairmen of a particular committee. And they don’t want necessarily consolidations where they would lose jurisdiction over certain aspects of certain policies.”
Even when he is attempting to apologize, Obama cannot help but to talk out of both sides of his mouth. “This is my administration,” he informed the press corps Friday. “I always take responsibility for whatever happens.” Then he immediately blamed others for what happened, noting acidly that the problem with the VA “predates my presidency.” One wonders at what point Obama expects to be judged. He expressly ran on a promise to fix the VA. He is now in the sixth year of his presidency. When might we look for the results?
The simple answer, it seems, is never. As he has from the very beginning, the president continues to conduct himself like a man standing outside the gates.
It’s certainly true that Obama is a poor manager. He isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of policy implementation. He prefers to strike poses. He makes pronouncements such as this: “If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it. Period.” (You’d think by now he’d avoid the intensifier “period.”) As with his comments about the IRS scandal, and “If you like your doctor . . . ,” and Benghazi, and the Justice Department’s targeting of journalists, the important thing is to get the affect right, not to solve problems or take responsibility. It’s unacceptable and a disgrace and no one is angrier than he . . . and what’s on Game of Thrones tonight? Maybe he should pose for a photo holding a sign saying “#Manage Our Government.”
Even if Obama were the best manager in the world, the problems with efficient service delivery by government would continue — because the government is too large, too unwieldy, and too lacking in incentives for efficiency to yield much, if at all, to management. A business that fails to deliver services will be crushed by its competitors. Government can never go out of business.
Via the Corner.
Via the Free Beacon.