President Obama doesn’t like to fire people.
Time and time again, “no-drama” Obama has refused to respond to controversy by taking a quick scalp.
The White House contends that Obama is being pragmatic, and prefers to focus on fixing the problem rather than offering a sacrificial lamb.
But there’s concern that the president may be loyal to a fault, to the harm of his party in an election year.
“There’s the old saying: never feed a crisis oxygen,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a political media consultant at Boston University. “The longer you leave someone in a situation, the longer you keep a problem going. If someone falls on their sword, you take a little bit of heat for a day, and then it's over.”
Obama’s pattern in a controversy involving an adviser or Cabinet secretary is now familiar.
During the botched rollout of ObamaCare, the president refused an offer from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to resign.
He stood by Attorney General Eric Holder amid questions over the Justice Department’s handling of the Fast and Furious gunrunning program and the subpoena of journalist phone records.
And he offered a passionate defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice after her controversial comments following the terror attacks in Benghazi.
Republicans have seized on Obama’s refusal to remove Shinseki, blasting the president as unwilling to take decisive action when his administration has erred.
“As we’ve seen with Attorney General Holder, Sec. Sebelius, and now Sec. Shinseki, President Obama cares more about keeping his friends in cushy cabinet spots than taking the steps necessary to guarantee the results and accountability the American people demand,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
They’ve also sought to contrast White House inaction with House approval of legislation that makes it easier to fire career civil servants deemed responsible for abuses at veterans facilities.
Obama’s team argues the president’s approach represents his desire to address the problems at the root of government mismanagement.
“During the middle of healthcare.gov removing the Secretary would cause a total upheaval at the agency, redirect personnel, resources, and a ton of bandwidth to a confirmation fight – when those very same people should be focused on fixing the problem,” said an administration official. “You could make same comparison at VA.”
The official argued the administration was “pretty damn good at cutting through the bureaucracy, fixing them, [and] amputating the corrosiveness” when genuine problems arise in government.
There are exceptions to Obama’s don’t-fire-first philosophy.
In the wake of the BP oil spill, the White House pressured Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, to resign.
The White House also forced the resignation of the head of the General Services Administration amid revelations that the agency spent excessively on a Las Vegas conference. Two other deputies were fired and four other managers were suspended.
And the president demanded the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS after the agency admitted that it had targeted conservative political groups in 2013.
He also fired Gen. Stanley McCrystal after his criticism of Obama’s war management was published in Rolling Stone.
But in McCrystal’s case, Obama had little choice but to fire a general who was challenging the military’s civilian command.
And the other firings were of people with more distance from the president than Shinseki or Sebelius.
Experts say there are some good reasons for not responding to pressure from Congress by firing staff.
“If the president is unsure what he's going to do with the status of a cabinet secretary, and opponents start calling for the secretary's resignation, then it could appear that his hand is being forced, and he can't appear weak,” said John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The louder that Republicans are, the less likely the president is to give in.”
Cabinet firings have held a particular political danger since Jimmy Carter’s decision to ask for the resignation of his entire team in 1979. The move accelerated perceptions Carter had lost control of his government, and left an enduring political lesson for future presidents.
The Sebelius case also underscores how addressing the root of a problem can be as effective as axing a figurehead. Despite retaining the leadership at HHS, the administration was able to largely fix the technical problems plaguing ObamaCare, and eventually exceeded original expectations for enrollments.
“The public cares about the VA scandal, for sure,” said Hudak. “They don’t care about the status of Eric Shinseki. What they want is the president to resolve this.”
Still, the White House appears aware of the limits of that strategy.
While Obama praised Shinseki for putting his “heart and soul” into veterans’ care, he also made clear that the former four-star general was essentially on probation.
Deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who was dispatched from the White House to lead a review of the VA, is expected to report back to the president on Shinseki’s standing, record, and capabilities within the agency. He’s been tasked with evaluating both how systematic issues at the agencies are, and Shinseki’s response as the crisis unfolds.