By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
President Obama strode into a cramped room at the Department of Veterans Affairs yesterday, faced a few dozen employees in stackable chairs and spoke for 12 minutes. He made no news, shook some hands and hustled back to the White House, just two blocks away.
But his short visit to the department's Vermont Avenue headquarters rallied many of the 280,000 workers at an agency bearing the brunt of two long, ongoing wars. Hundreds of workers filled a basement cafeteria to hear him speak. A 29-year human resources specialist said the president made her believe she is part of his mission to change government. And a file clerk said Obama inspired her to believe she is more than a lowly bureaucrat.
"I'm just a file clerk," said Donnice George, a VA employee for 19 years. "He's a leader, he's African American, and he's president. It's something I never thought I'd see in a million years, and I feel like I'm a part of it. Just being an employee makes me feel a part of it."
Two months into office, Obama has visited seven federal agencies' headquarters, each time appearing with his Cabinet secretaries and addressing workers. As he makes the rounds, Obama is inspiring longtime career employees with his speeches and asking them to be a partner in his agenda to change the culture of Washington.
"There's clearly an excitement and sense that you have a president that is aggressively and optimistically moving forward with making government cool again," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. "That's the charge that President Obama said he wants to meet, and across the board federal workers feel that energy and need to perform. . . . That sense of importance and a critical role is something I sense in the federal workforce."
At VA yesterday, employees, including several in wheelchairs, packed a two-story auditorium to sit behind a red-velvet rope line and hear Obama speak. The president, alongside VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, marked the 20th anniversary of the former Veterans Administration's elevation to Cabinet-level status by reaffirming the country's commitment to veterans and calling for an expansion of services as troops begin returning from the Iraq war.
"The homecoming we face over the next year and a half will be the true test of this commitment: whether we will stand with our veterans as they face new challenges -- physical, psychological and economic -- here at home," Obama said.
In his budget, Obama proposes adding $25 billion to the VA budget over five years to help provide health care to an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013 and fund a new GI Bill.
"We'll show our servicemen and -women that when you come home to America, America will be here for you," Obama said. "That's how we will ensure that those who have 'borne the battle' -- and their families -- will have every chance to live out their dreams."
The thousands of employees who did not win tickets to see Obama watched him on television at the headquarters and at satellite offices and hospitals nationwide. Many workers said in interviews that the president gives them hope and that they come to work each day reinvigorated.
"When I heard rumors they were trying to get him here, I thought, no way," said Bill Bremby, a chief of property management who joined VA two decades ago, after 30 years in the Marine Corps. "I thought we were on the back burner. But now we're on the front burner. He gave me a lot of hope."
For Patricia Marshall, 54, an African American who voted for Obama, her job as a VA human resources specialist seems to have taken on greater meaning.
"I was a part of the process getting him elected, and now I'm part of his government, and he is my commander in chief," Marshall said. Changing government "is not going to be an overnight thing," she said. "What he has stepped into is like a hornet's nest. It's going to take time, but what he's doing is possible, and I'm part of the team."
Not every employee was as enthusiastic about the new president. Jerry Roberts, a program analyst, said Obama is "a good change for the nation." But asked whether Obama has changed the way he views his job, Roberts was more reserved: "I'll just wait and see," he said.
After Obama left the headquarters, employees gathered in conference rooms and the cafeteria to enjoy yellow sheet cake in honor of the departmental anniversary. Piedad R. Holmes, a budget analyst set to depart for Afghanistan as an Army reservist, was showing colleagues pictures of Obama she had taken to share with fellow troops.
"We'll be buoyed here for months," Shinseki said as he shook hands with employees.
"It's one thing to talk about how we're going to make change," Chanel Bankston-Carter, who directs the VA client service center, said in between serving slices of cake. "But to have a president step foot in here and want to be up close and personal and shake hands and tell you he's here with you, it's wonderful."
Standing outside the entrance, craning her neck to see Obama's motorcade, Peggy Kennedy, an 11-year veteran who is a national program manager overseeing social work, said, "He gives us a new hope, a new mission -- a joy."