As he struggles to contain the political damage from the widening VA scandal, President Obama met with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on Wednesday and emerged to say he’s pushing for quick, decisive action — but critics say it’s another example of his employing strong rhetoric without actually firing anyone.
Mr. Obama, who has dispatched his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to Phoenix to investigate claims that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care, struck a passionate, sometimes angry tone during remarks in the White House and broke his silence on the issue by calling accusations of VA misconduct “dishonorable” and “disgraceful.”
“There is going to be accountability” if those charges prove true, the president said, while also leaving the door open to fire Mr. Shinseki at a later date. Some lawmakers and powerful groups, such as the American Legion, have called for the secretary to be removed from his post and criticized Mr. Obama’s reaction Wednesday as insufficient.
“I know he cares about [veterans issues] deeply, and he has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America. We’re going to work with him to solve the problem, but I am going to make sure there is accountability throughout the system,” Mr. Obama said.
But the president’s strong words thus far haven’t been matched by action, with the exception of ordering a full investigation into claims VA officials kept false records to hide lengthy wait times at their facilities.
Republicans are seizing on issues at the VA which, when combined with the administration’s measured response, offer further proof that this president, known as careful and deliberate in his actions, reacts too slowly in situations where heads ought to roll quickly.
They cite the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, the Benghazi affair and other incidents where Mr. Obama failed to act swiftly and decisively by firing those responsible.
“The IRS scandal, the NSA breach, Benghazi, the failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the botched Fast and Furious operation, and now what is nothing short of malfeasance at the VA are symptomatic of a president unable to skillfully lead our country,” said Rep. E. Scott Rigell, Virginia Republican.
“President Obama will be in office another 21/2 years. For the sake of the country, I call upon him to do what a true leader would do: hold his key executives responsible for their performance.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, also said Wednesday that it’s time for “serious action and accountability” in addressing problems at the VA.
In a statement Wednesday that also expressed disappointment at Mr. Shinseki continuing in his position, the American Legion chided the president for mere words.
“Words are nice, and even somewhat comforting, but when will the VA’s house be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system?” questioned Daniel M. Dellinger, the Legion’s national commander.
The VFW spoke similarly, saying in a statement that the president still needs to “hold people appropriately accountable and restore faith in the VA.”
Thus far, the only real change at the VA came when the department’s undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, resigned last week.
But he had announced more than six months ago, long before the current firestorm was ignited, that he would retire soon.
A similar situation unfolded last year in the wake of revelations the IRS singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny. Soon after the misconduct came to light, Mr. Obama expressed outrage at the situation and promised there would be accountability.
Within a few weeks, the president asked for and received the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller in May 2013. Mr. Miller, however, was already scheduled to retire less than two months later.
Lois G. Lerner, who led the agency’s tax-exempt division, retired in September of last year when it appeared she might soon be fired. But Ms. Lerner had already planned to retire in October as well.
Many of the administration’s other controversies have seen little or nothing in the way of personal accountability.
Last month, B. Todd Jones, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told Congress that no one involved in the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation has been fired.
To date, no one has been fired in connection with the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi terrorist attack that claimed four American lives. Four State Department employees were put on paid administrative leave after the incident, but they later returned to work.
The president resisted loud calls to fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after the disastrous rollout of Obamacare last fall, but Mr. Obama stuck by the secretary. She announced her resignation last month.
Some specialists say the administration invites public anger with its handling of scandals, though they also say rash action can sometimes cause even more problems.
“From a crisis management viewpoint, the administration has been slow to respond to other crises, resulting in a public that is increasingly impatient,” said Daniel Hill, president of Ervin Hill Strategy, a leading communications and public affairs firm in Washington.
“A swift response to a crisis is always best, but not to the point that major decisions are made in haste, including the firing of a top official. The facts very well may suggest that General Shinseki failed in leading the VA, which is when he should be relieved of his duties,” he said.
Mr. Obama said he expects Mr. Nabors and Mr. Shinseki to complete a top-down review of VA procedures by next month. The VA’s inspector general also is pursuing a separate probe.
In the meantime, the president used Wednesday’s remarks to assure the American people he’s not taking the issue lightly.
“When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct, whether it is allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American. None of us should. So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” Mr. Obama said. “I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened.”
• Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this report.