The White House tried Tuesday to douse flames of criticism over allegations that dozens of veterans have died because of gross mismanagement at Veterans Affairs hospitals.
President Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, met frustrated Democrats on Capitol Hill who are outraged by reports of secret waiting lists used by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
On Wednesday, Nabors will head to Phoenix, where up to 40 veterans died allegedly due to treatment delays.
The administration’s coordinated response highlighted how much the scandal is damaging Obama as Republicans blast administration incompetence months before November’s midterm elections.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement that he is “disturbed” by news reports that Obama learned of alleged abuses through the media.
“It is time for our president to come forward and to take responsibility for this — and to do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight,” Cantor said.
Republicans have scheduled a House vote this week on a bill to make it easier for the VA to fire or demote senior officials guilty of mismanagement.
Obama’s spokesman on Monday hinted that the president is likely to address the controversy publicly soon.
Outrage is pouring in from politicians of both main parties, underscoring the political peril for Obama, who appeared to have rebounded after the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
Traditional liberal supporters, including “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, have blasted the president’s response as tepid.
“It’s a scandal where not only your team was caught off-guard, but it doesn’t seem like a partisan issue at its genesis — but an actual scandal of incompetence,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton political affairs professor.
“And veterans are a powerful constituency — a constituency that touches on many American families. People feel very strongly that veterans should be treated well.”
Conservatives are excoriating what they see as a lack of media coverage of administration culpability in the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 and of Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups. But there has been no lack of reporting on the deaths and VA waiting lists.
White House briefings have been dominated by questions over the administration’s response, especially from traditional television networks, which cater to an aging population for whom veterans hospitals often play a critical role.
The administration’s initial response to the scandal seems only to have worsened perceptions about how it has handled the issue, and led to criticism of Shinseki.
On the “Daily Show,” Stewart joked that Shinseki’s “mad as hell face” looked “a lot like your, ‘Oh, we’re out of orange juice’ face.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Shinseki is an ineffective front man for the administration’s clean-up efforts — much like Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius during the ObamaCare rollout.
“His affect is impassive and unemotional — a pure technocrat,” Jillson said. “So it looks like when a serious problem is uncovered that has an emotional dimension to it, that they didn’t get it, didn’t care, weren’t moving as forcefully as they should have been.”
And White House press secretary Jay Carney has occasionally stumbled while fielding a barrage of questions on the VA.
On Monday, he repeatedly suggested that the American Legion had endorsed the resignation of Veterans Affairs official Robert Petzel as a step toward accountability amid the allegations. But a statement from the veterans group noted that Petzel was already expected to resign, and dismissed his departure as “not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual.”
Carney’s concession that Obama had first learned about allegations of misconduct at the Phoenix veterans center also enabled GOP attacks, such as the one from Cantor, suggesting the president is oblivious about what is going on inside his administration.
On Tuesday, Carney apologized for a “lack of clarity on my part,” and said Obama had long been aware of systematic problems with the department.
Congressional Democrats are frustrated.
“No one wants to learn about a situation through the news,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, said after the meeting with McDonough.
But they have not demanded Shinseki’s resignation, and are trying to preempt GOP political attacks.
“We also want to make sure that it’s clear that we don’t want to turn this into another political tool ... so you can raise campaign cash off of our veterans,” Becerra said. “There should be nothing partisan about this.”
House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said he is prepared to wait until Nabors concludes his investigation before recommending “any further action.”
“Denis McDonough made it very clear: The president is gonna be on this,” said Becerra.