May 21

This morning, President Obama addressed the burgeoning controversy around the Veterans Health Administration, particularly allegations that officials at a VA facility in Phoenix falsified records to conceal how long wait times for appointments were. “If these allegations prove to be true,” Obama said, “it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.”

Obama also noted that he has been talking about problems at the VA since before he was president, and pledged to solve them. During the press conference he made a case that a great deal of progress has already been made in improving the VA’s services, including reducing the backlog in disability claims by half, even as he promised to hold people accountable for whatever may have happened in Phoenix and elsewhere.

If Democrats are going to argue that government can be a force for good, their most basic responsibility is to make government work. Despite what Obama said today, the administration has not succeed yet in reforming this agency. Far from it. At the presser, Obama conceded that the ultimate responsibility lies with him, and that it’s also on him to prove that government can function on a basic level. He’s right — and in this case, his work is not even close to done.

It’s true that there may have been no agency that faced more challenges than the VA when President Obama took over. But in some ways, they had already come a long way. In 2007, Phillip Longman wrote a widely-praised article, later expanded into a book, documenting how the VA health care system had transformed itself into a model of excellent care, using creative problem-solving and early adoption of electronic records.

So what happened since then? Perhaps the system was overwhelmed with all the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans needing care. But it seems that there are two related problems here. One is an old one: a system without the resources to get vets the care they need in a timely fashion. I have no doubt that the people who staff VA hospitals would love to treat every vet as quickly as possible, but for whatever combination of reasons they weren’t able to keep up.

That inability appears to have led to the second problem, which is the fishy way some seem to have tried to cover up for the delays. This too is an old story: when people know they’ll face consequences for failure to solve a problem, they can either solve the problem or find a way to make it seem to their superiors like it’s been solved even if it hasn’t. I’ve personally seen this kind of bureaucratic legerdemain in both private companies and non-profits, and I’m sure it happens a lot in government, too, though seldom with such dire consequences.

There’s an old saying that when they’re out of office, Republicans argue that government is inefficient and incompetent, and when they get in office, they set about to prove it. When Obama got elected, one of things that made liberals pleased was that after eight years of Republican rule, the federal government would finally be led by people who were committed to making it work, not dismantling it. Obviously, in this particular case, he has fallen well short.

I’m sure that there are agencies and offices in federal government that are operating far more efficiently and effectively than they were before Obama took office, where committed and competent people took over and whipped them into shape. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about them, for the same reason that successful airplane landings don’t make the news.

As troubling as some of these allegations are, this controversy presents an opportunity for the administration. This isn’t some kind of phony scandal like Benghazi: it’s a real issue with real consequences. But it’s also a set of problems that can be solved, even if some of those problems go back decades. Two and a half years from now, this presidency will be over. If by then officials can say that every veteran who needs care is getting it without having to wait an unreasonably long time, and that every disability claim is being processed quickly, and that the agency as a whole is capable of handling the enormous task it confronts, then they’ll be able to claim an important victory.

That wouldn’t be just a victory for this administration. More broadly, it would be a victory for the liberal vision of effective government. Sometimes it takes some bad news to provide the incentive people need.