President Obama did something he detests today: He bent to the will of political Washington.
Obama fired Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki -- in official-speak, Shinseki offered his resignation and Obama accepted it -- amid a hail of calls for Shinseki's removal from both sides of Capitol Hill and a media feeding frenzy about when/if the VA head would/should go. But, in his remarks announcing the news Obama made quite clear that removing Shinseki was something he did with a heavy heart. "Ric’s commitment to our veterans is unquestioned," said Obama. "His service to our country is exemplary. I am grateful for his service, as are many veterans across the country." Later, he added: "I want to reiterate, [Shinseki] is a very good man. I don’t just mean he’s an accomplished man. I don’t just mean that he’s been an outstanding soldier. He’s a good person who’s done exemplary work on our behalf."
So, why did Obama get rid of someone for whom he quite clearly has considerable respect and even considered a personal friend? Because Obama recognized that as much as he might hate the chattering class in Washington and nervous nelly politicians constantly fretting about what problems within his administration might mean for their own re-election races, this was an instance in which political Washington was right.
To that end, it's interesting to note the differences between how Obama handled the calls for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the wake of the bungled rollout of healthcare.gov and how he approached the scandal surrounding the wait times for veterans to get care at VA facilities around the country.
See all those blue squares and circles? That's all of the Democrats -- including the like of House campaign chief Steve Israel and virtually every Democratic Senator in a swing state up for reelection in 2014 -- who had called for Shinseki to resign, a number that soared this week in the wake of a preliminary report from the Veterans Affairs Inspector General that identified systemic failures up and down the VA chain of command. See how there are no blue squares or circles on the Sebelius side?
And, remember that the problems surrounding healthcare.gov came in mid to late 2013 (not an election year) and came on an issue -- the Affordable Care Act -- that had already been politicized within an inch of its life. Not so, the VA problems. The scandal broke into the public view less than seven months before a midterm election that already doesn't look good for Democrats nationally. And, it centered on an issue -- ensuring that those who put their lives on the line for the country are taken care of as they age -- that lacks any obvious partisan line-drawing.
All of the above meant that Obama could -- and, for his political legacy, probably needed to -- keep Sebelius on the job until healthcare.gov started running smoothly and she could be sent off on good news (8 million signups under the federal exchange). Obama lacked that luxury with Shinseki due to the timing of the scandal and its nature.
A sacrifice had to be made -- and Obama understood that. Shinseki had to go -- not just because that's what political Washington wanted but because real people affected by the VA's screwups needed some evidence that the people at the top were being held accountable. Had Shinseki hung on, the talk of the Sunday shows would have focused on why Obama hadn't jettisoned him and what that said about the president's style of leadership and his willingness to hold people accountable for their mistakes. The story seemed -- and seems -- likely to get worse before it gets better and it was hard to see how keeping Shinseki in his job for another week or month would help -- and very clear how it could hurt.
This was a political boil that needed lancing and Obama, who, when he needs to be, is a political pragmatist extraordinaire, did the deed. But, he made clear he didn't like doing it.