Growing calls from both Republicans and Democrats for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will likely force President Barack Obama to do something he has almost always stubbornly avoided as chief executive: Firing a top official in the midst of a political storm.
At first glance, it’s surprising that Shinseki has remained despite a weeks-long controversy over allegations of VA hospitals not properly registering patients on waiting lists and leaving some to endure months without care. White House officials privately say he is on "thin ice" and has been on “probation” since the scandal began with no decision yet on his future.
This is the Obama way. Aides say the president is loath to dump someone simply because others in Washington are urging him to do so, both because the rush to judgment often ignores key facts and the person in charge of an agency is sometimes best equipped to address its challenges.
“The President is practical. If there's a crisis, you need someone to manage it. And firing someone without having a replacement ready to go can do more harm than good. He also doesn't feel the need to fire someone to mollify the D.C. critics if it's not the right thing to do. He'd rather have them fix it,” said Tommy Vietor, who was a communications adviser in both Obama’s Senate office and later at the White House.
Even in the days after the dismal failure of healthcare.gov last fall, Obama kept in place Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for months until finally accepting her resignation. Attorney General Eric Holder has survived six years in office, despite pushes for him to go from not only Republicans but at times even fellow Obama administration aides.
Shinseki is very unlikely to get the long goodbye that Sebelius was granted. A preliminary report released on Wednesday from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs found that at least 1,700 veterans at the agency's Phoenix clinic were not properly registered on waiting lists, causing a bloc of Democratic senators to break with Obama and urge Shinseki’s resignation.
The healthcare.gov challenges were embarrassing to the president and imperiled his signature legislative achievement. But there are suggestions that the failures of the veterans’ health care system actually led to deaths, although the recent report did not confirm those allegations.
In addition, this controversy arguably threatens the Democrats’ prospects of controlling the Senate more than health care simply because the election is now only a few months away and the controversy is ongoing. Few Democrats urged Sebelius to step down, while a growing number of people in the party are distancing themselves from Shinseki.
White House officials are offering cautious comments about Shinseki’s job status, and there is already talk about a search for candidates to replace him.
Shinseki’s tenure is likely to end when Obama administration officials find a candidate who can both be easily confirmed by the Senate and has the management skills to overhaul the VA health system. Looking back at the health care example, Obama announced Sebelius’ resignation and the appointment of Sylvia Mathews Burwell almost simultaneously.
But both Shinseki and Sebelius endured controversy longer than expected because of Obama’s style.
In both cases, the president’s instinct, instead of firing the Cabinet official, was to strike a balancing act. While avoiding an emphatic defense of either that would have drawn comparisons to when George W. Bush praised then-FEMA head Mike Brown as doing a “heck of a job” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Obama allowed Sebelius and Shinseki a chance to stay in place and attempt to fix the problem. At the time, Obama dispatched Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to review the VA health system, as veteran aide Jeff Zients was appointed to oversee healthcare.gov, in a clear sign he lacked complete confidence in the Cabinet official.
At times, Obama aides have relented to a public pressure to push out someone and then realized it was a mistake. The administration, according to senior officials, regrets the decision in 2010 to force the resignation of then-Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod over a controversial video that turned out to be doctored.
Obama though is not completely averse to firing people. The administration dumped the heads of the General Services Administration and the Internal Revenue Service in earlier controversies, and Obama himself ousted General Stanley McChrystal because of comments the commander made to Rolling Stone magazine.
Shinseki appears headed for a similar fate.
First published May 29 2014, 10:06 AM