Even when President Obama at last decided to fire someone for the scandal at the Veterans Affairs Administration, he made clear it was not his idea. In fact, Obama said, he had to be convinced by the man who was being let go.
At a White House news conference Friday, Obama was asked why he parted ways with embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The president had been supporting him for two weeks amid calls from Congress to hold someone accountable for revelations of long wait times and mismanagement at veteran hospitals.
“Ric’s judgement,” replied Obama, who had met privately with Shinseki before facing reporters in the crowded briefing room. “His belief that he would be a distraction from the task at hand, which is to make sure that what’s broken gets fixed so that his fellow veterans are getting what they need.”
Technically speaking, Shinseki, 71, a retired general, offered his resignation and Obama accepted it, the White House said. But there was little question that the retired general was pushed out the door amid growing concern from Democrats about the recent disclosures of long wait times at veteran hospitals and federal employees trying to game the system to mask the problems.
The decision — coming on a Friday, when bad news is often delivered in hopes of having the impact minimized over the weekend — marked a change in Obama’s usual crisis management strategy when it comes to Cabinet officials and senior West Wing advisers.
Obama, like other presidents before him, has generally been loath to quickly fire his top advisers, in part, experts said, because such a move could be viewed as an admission of his own mismanagement.
Just last fall, for example, Obama took precisely the opposite approach in the wake of the botched rollout of the health-care Web site, rebuffing calls to fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She remained on the job for six more months, helping oversee the repairs through the enrollment deadline at the end of March, before announcing her resignation 10 days later.
The striking difference appeared difficult for Obama to justify Friday.
Obama said that replacing Sebelius amid the health-care fixes would have been “a distraction” — the same word he used for why he let Shinseki go — “at a time when we were trying to fix that system.”
“I wanted to just stay focused because I knew that if we bear down on it and we got folks enrolled, that it would work,” Obama said of Sebelius’s situation.
At the time, White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri told The Washington Post: “This president is looking for solutions, not scalps. His own focus and his clear direction to all of us is to stay focused on getting implementation right.”
David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, said presidents, unlike private sector chief executives, are loath to fire underlings for several reasons: Appointments are heavily politicized, the stage is a national one rather than private shareholders, and firing an appointee is freighted with symbolic considerations.
He noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt was “famous for not firing anybody” and that several of his top aides, including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, were with him throughout his tenures even though “all of them were controversial.”
“There was an old maxim during the time of Andrew Jackson, when federal office holders at all levels down to the post master hung onto their jobs forever: Few die and none resign,” Kennedy said.
In other high-profile situations — involving Internal Revenue Service employees targeting Tea Party groups, Secret Service agents partying in foreign countries and the State Department response to the Benghazi consulate attacks in 2012 — Obama also resisted calls from political rivals and media pundits to remove top figures.
In some cases, Obama did not believe the agencies involved had made major transgressions, calling the lapses isolated and trumped up by his political rivals.
Even with Shinseki, Obama went to great lengths to defend the retired general, who had been injured after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam, calling him “ a good man . . .an outstanding soldier. . .a champion of our veterans.” And the president emphasized repeatedly that the problems at veterans hospitals preceded Obama’s tenure and that the specific recent examples of wrongdoing “did not surface to the level where Ric was aware or it or we were able to see it.”
But Shinseki was more exposed when influential Democrats began joining Republicans in calling for his ouster, something that did not happen to Sebelius. In her case, the White House and Democrats feared a nasty confirmation fight for a replacement at a time when Republicans were trying to exploit the health-care Web site problems for political gain heading into the midterm election cycle this fall.
By the time Sebelius had departed, the enrollment figures showed that the White House had surpassed its initial goals, blunting GOP criticism.
In Shinseki’s case, the problems inside the VA are far more intractable and will take a lot longer to fix. The latest blow to the general came Friday morning, when Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former Veterans Affairs official who lost both of her legs while serving in combat in Iraq, urged Shinseki to resign.
“Our first priority should be the veterans, and at this point, whether Secretary Shinseki will stay or go is too much of a distraction,” Duckworth said. “I think he has to go. He certainly loves veterans, but it’s time for new leadership.”
A short time later, a black sport-utility vehicle pulled up to the West Wing along West Executive Drive, and Shinseki got out for a meeting with the commander-in-chief. News photographers shot pictures over hedges in the White House driveway with their telephoto lenses.
Forty-five minutes later, the retired general departed the White House with a new title as former secretary. Shinseki had taken himself out of the picture, so Obama wouldn’t have to.