This morning, President Obama announced that Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has resigned. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone; calls for his resignation had been increasing in recent days. And let’s be honest: both the question of whether he should resign and whether he would resign were determined by politics. That’s OK — this is Washington, and politics determines almost everything, at least in part.
Obama said Shinseki told him he would be a “distraction” if he continued in the job, and the President agreed. While that’s often a face-saving excuse, in this case it’s true. Advocating his resignation was a clear and simple way you could communicate to voters that you’re outraged.
Even if Shinseki had been doing a stellar job in nearly every way (and to be clear, like most people I can’t really say if that’s the case), there’s value in accountability at the top. When you accept leadership of a large agency, you’ll get some credit you may not deserve for its successes, and some blame you may not deserve for its failures; that’s just part of the deal. We can also presume that there will be any number of people who can come into the job and do it well.
But now the real work begins.
There are two separate problems the administration confronts. First, there is the less important political problem. The reality is that as long as Shinseki was in office, Republicans would have a target at whom to shake their fists, and a way to keep the political story in the news. They benefited greatly from being able to call angrily for his resignation, an almost content-free bit of political theater that any candidate or member of Congress can participate in. But once he resigns, the focus has to turn to actually addressing the department’s problems, and that’s something that every candidate and almost all members of Congress will be completely uninterested in.
The more important problem is the very complicated practical question of how to fix what’s wrong at the V.A. Some parts of it, like making it harder for managers to game the system to make it seem like delays in getting appointments are shorter than they are, may be easy to solve. Others, like actually getting all those vets in quickly given the limited manpower of V.A. health facilities, are going to be a lot harder to solve.
After a couple of days the V.A. story will probably move from the front page to the inside pages. But those of us in the media should keep paying attention to how the project to fix the department goes, even if politicians stop talking about it. That’s what really matters.