WASHINGTON — It doesn’t inspire great confidence that President Obama, on the day he finally decided to comment about excessive wait times for veterans’ medical appointments, showed up late to read his statement.
The White House briefing room is about 100 feet from the Oval Office, but Obama arrived 13 minutes after the scheduled time for his remarks, the first since the day the scandal broke late last month with a report that 40 veterans had died in Phoenix while waiting to see doctors.
Two weekends ago, the president’s chief of staff assured the public that Obama was “madder than hell” about what happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but in person Obama didn’t seem very angry. Like VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Obama wasn’t entirely convinced something bad had happened.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable,” he said. “If there is misconduct, it will be punished.”
Obama spoke of only “the possibility that somebody was trying to manipulate the data” on appointment wait lists, and he suggested that “whatever is wrong” may be “just an episodic problem.”
But there are no “ifs” about it: Numerous inquiries and leaked memos over several years point to “gaming strategies” employed at VA facilities to make wait times for medical appointments seem shorter — and these clearly aren’t limited to those reported in Phoenix; Albuquerque; Fort Collins, Colo.; and elsewhere. Lawmakers in both parties have spoken of a systemic problem at the agency, and the American Legion, citing “poor oversight,” has called for Shinseki’s resignation — the first time it has made such a gesture in more than 70 years.
Obama said that he doesn’t want the matter to become “another political football,” and that’s understandable. But his response to the scandal has created an inherent contradiction: He can’t be “madder than hell” about something if he won’t acknowledge that the thing actually occurred. This would be a good time for Obama to knock heads and to get in front of the story. But, frustratingly, he’s playing President Passive, insisting on waiting for the VA’s inspector general to complete yet another investigation, this one looking into the Phoenix deaths.
While declaring that “we have to let the investigators do their job,” Obama wasn’t waiting on one point. “The IG indicated that he did not see a link between the wait and them actually dying,” the president told reporters, referring to the 40 veterans in Phoenix. Few had thought Obama would take a bolder stand on Wednesday, as indicated by the network reporters doing their stand-ups before he walked in.
“The first thing we expect to hear from the president is no announcement about Eric Shinseki having to resign,” said CBS News’ Major Garrett.
Said NBC’s Peter Alexander, “We don’t expect any dramatic new information coming out of the president’s mouth.”
Obama met these expectations. Referring frequently to his notes, he offered the platitude that veterans “are the best that our country has to offer,” and he said that long waits for veterans’ medical care have “been a problem for decades, and it’s been compounded by more than a decade of war.” He assured his television audience that “we have been working really hard” to lessen the delays, and that “we don’t have to wait to find out if there was misconduct to dig in and make sure that we’re upping our game.”
He said the disability-claim backlog has been cut in half in the past year, and that “there are millions of veterans who are getting really good service from the VA.” This may all be true, but it’s a bit like pointing out after a plane crash that many other flights landed safely.
The Associated Press’ Jim Kuhnhenn asked whether Shinseki is responsible for what happened.
Obama replied that “I am going to make sure there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report.”
Steve Holland of Reuters followed up: “If he’s not to blame, then who is?”
Obama repeated that he’s “waiting to see what the results of all this review process yields.”
Garrett asked about bonuses paid to people implicated in mismanagement.
“If somebody’s mismanaged or engaged in misconduct,” Obama said, “I want them punished. So that’s what we’re going to hopefully find out from the — from the IG report as well as the audits that are taking place.”
But Obama doesn’t need an IG to tell him “if” there has been mismanagement and misconduct. He needs only his eyes and ears.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.