When a president notifies us that he’s “madder than hell,” the least he can do is feign a little anger. But according to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, President Obama failed to meet that low standard yesterday in his remarks about the VA scandal.
For starters, Obama was late to the event:
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.
Once he arrived, moreover, “Obama didn’t seem very angry.” Indeed, he professed agnosticism as to whether there was anything to be angry about:
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.”
Milbank, liberal though he is, wasn’t buying it:
[T]here 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.
This isn’t the case of a president declining to rush to judgment. Either Obama hasn’t done his homework or he is intentionally downplaying the scandal by ignoring established facts.
Obama insisted that we must wait for the VA inspector general to complete his investigation into the Phoenix deaths before reaching conclusions. But as Milbank puts it, Obama needs only his eyes and ears to determine that there has been mismanagement and misconduct.
Milbank dubs Obama “President Passive” for his approach to the VA scandal and, I imagine, other instances of presidential detachment. It’s not a bad label; Milbank has always been a world class name-caller.
It’s only with respect to the mundane business of everyday governance that Obama becomes President Passive. He didn’t run for president out of any desire to provide high-quality, or even competent, administration regarding what should be routine matters. He ran for president to transform America. You don’t transform America by worrying about the quality of health care wounded veterans receive.
But this doesn’t quite explain Obama’s passivity — his inability even to feign anger — now that the scandal has broken. That passivity is, I suspect, the product of Obama’s arrogance. Obama seems temperamentally incapable of going before the press and expressing alarm over mismanagement and misconduct that has occurred on his watch. He’s too cool to want to show alarm and he’s too defensive to want to confess error.
These traits have served Obama fairly well during most of his time in office. But lately, they seem to be wearing thin. And they simply won’t do when the issue is the health of wounded warriors, as Dana Milbank’s hard-hitting piece makes clear.