Anatomy of a scandal: Barack Obama and the VA

Recalling the story of an 89-year-old South Carolina veteran who committed suicide after being repeatedly denied access to health care, the candidate bellowed: “How can we let this happen? How is that acceptable in the United States of America? The answer is, it’s not. It’s an outrage. And it’s a betrayal — a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”

That was presidential candidate Barack Obama in May 2008, six years before his Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be accused of covering up its failure to properly care for ailing veterans, keeping secret lists of patients waiting for treatment, with dozens of veterans allegedly dying in the bureaucratic darkness.

These accusations are the tip of the iceberg. “They are deep, system-wide problems, and they grow more concerning every day,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state.

There’s been an odd silence in the Jewish world about this embarrassing episode of the Obama presidency — and I count myself in this group. But in the wake of Memorial Day, the story caught my attention, so I asked myself: If we’re supposed to honor those who died for our country, what about those who fought and survived?

“It is hard to imagine leaving our veterans to wither and die after they’ve survived enemy fire and war,” Kathleen Parker wrote in The Washington Post.

“If you’ve ever been seriously sick, or helped a family member who is, you know how dark it can get,” John Dickerson wrote in Slate. “Now imagine if you experienced it with the inefficiency of the worst experience you’ve ever had with customer service. That’s what’s happening in some cases at Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals around the country.”  

Politicians can’t claim to have been blindsided by this government malfunction. As Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting noted on National Public Radio, “The idea that the VA has been manipulating data on wait times was in an inspector general’s report in 2005, again in 2007, again in 2012. … So it all goes to the question of accountability.”

Who should be held accountable?

It’s true that President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for the influx of wounded veterans from a war he didn’t support, but, as leader of the country, he personally committed to veterans that he’d take on this “outrage” and “betrayal.”

On a deeper level, though, this saga is a reminder of how much government — and even more so big government — depends on competent management. Obama’s heart was surely in the right place, but did he have competent people in the right places? And did he have the managerial skills to live up to his lofty promises?  

“It’s an especially dangerous scandal for President Obama,” wrote Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times, “because it fits into an established narrative about his presidency: that he’s a skilled politician and speechmaker but a lousy manager.”

In Obama’s case, it’s a double whammy: managerial weakness coupled with a nearly blind faith in big government, which typically means throwing big money at problems and hoping for the best.

The VA’s core problem isn’t money. As retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs noted on MSNBC, because of the big increase in wounded veterans, the VA was among the few departments to receive more funding following forced sequestration cuts in 2013.   

“It doesn’t matter how much money you give them,” he said. “The structure of the Veterans Administration health business is not organized in order to deliver health care. Unless … you break it down and have a public/private partnership, you’re not going to give health care to veterans who really need it.”

Great leaders know when to get their hands dirty. If they see signs that things are failing, they roll up their sleeves, rack their brains and use their authority to make things better. They do it because they remember their promises. They don’t wait for CNN to turn a problem into a scandal.

Of course, it’s not easy for a president who worships big government to acknowledge that a government program isn’t working — and that more money won’t fix the problem. Bill Clinton was a Democratic president who could take on big government. Obama isn’t. 

“To admit that our government bureaucracies and our hulking programs are too big to succeed … is to admit to a failure of ideology,” The Washington Post’s Parker writes. “The president likely knows this in his heart, which may be why he prefers being surprised by news than collapsing under the burden of being wrong.”

We can’t expect Obama to reform the VA any time soon, but we can expect him to go beyond damage control and put a priority on saving lives. (I wonder how many vets are presently on bureaucratic death row.)

The Jewish community, and all Americans for that matter, must make more noise. We must urge our president and Congress to take whatever steps they can to make sure that ailing veterans are no longer fatally stricken by the disease of bureaucratic ineptitude.

As a presidential candidate once said so eloquently, anything less would be “a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at