Is Obama nudging VA chief Shinseki offstage?

President Obama gave embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki tepid support at a White House press conference: 'If he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.'

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Wednesday following his meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The White House moved Wednesday to address the growing furor over allegations of misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Is the clock ticking down on Eric Shinseki’s tenure as secretary of the Veterans Administration? It sure sounded that way on Wednesday as President Obama gave Mr. Shinseki – a retired four-star Army general – somewhat tepid backing in a press conference on allegations of misconduct at VA hospitals.

Shinseki is himself a disabled veteran and has been a “great soldier," said Mr. Obama. But when asked directly if the VA chief had offered to resign due to the developing VA scandal, the president said, “I know that [Shinseki’s] attitude is, if he does not think he can do a good job on this, and if he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.”

That sounds as if Obama has put the VA chief on notice that things had better turn around and fast, and that if action isn’t taken, it might be his turn to go. Plus, it might already be Shinseki’s fate to shuffle off the stage after a decent interval – as former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius waited some months as criticism of the Obamacare rollout crested, then resigned at a time of her own choosing.

“Got to think (hope) that Shinseki is getting the 'Sebelius' – a slow walk off the plank,” tweeted National Journal senior reporter Ron Fournier after the president spoke.

For the White House, the larger question is whether it can tamp down the growing furor over a problem that even administration officials admit could carry more weight than such previous scandals as the IRS investigations into the tax status of conservative political groups.

The political problem stems from the substantive problem that VA care has long faced allegations that it is substandard. For decades, presidents have insisted that the nation’s former warriors deserved better. Obama himself inveighed against such problems when he served on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs as a senator, and when he first ran for the presidency in 2008.

The current issue at the VA is allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at a growing number of VA hospitals. The VA Inspector General’s office now says that 26 facilities are being investigated for these problems nationwide, up from 10 a week ago. Right now, the epicenter of the allegations concerns a Phoenix hospital where 40 veterans are said to have died while waiting for treatment, and staff kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.

The White House has temporarily assigned Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to the VA to look into the problem and perhaps recommend and oversee reforms. This is another parallel with the troubled Obamacare rollout, as the administration dispatched incoming National Economic Council director Jeffrey Zients to help patch up the glitches at in the fall of 2013. Administration officials think this move paid off in a quick improvement in the system, and they’re hoping for a similar process to occur again.

For Mr. Nabors to succeed at the VA, he’ll need clarity of mission, continued access to the president, and lots of help from people with expertise in the VA’s problems, writes Boise State University political scientist Justin Vaughn, an expert in political “czar” appointments, in the Washington Post "Monkey Cage" blog.

Time to analyze the results might also be nice, but Nabors may not get that luxury.

“If Obama wants Nabors’s time at the VA to be effective, and not just a symbolic response to public concern, he must give Nabors the resources and opportunity to be successful. So far, the president has said the right things. Time will tell whether Nabors gets what he needs,” writes Mr. Vaughn.

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