Judgment day for Shinseki?

Greg Nash

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is widely expected to lose his job as the White House seeks to quell a rising controversy over mismanagement at his agency.

White House press secretary Jay Carney offered little support for Shinseki’s position on Thursday, repeatedly brushing aside questions about whether President Obama had the four-star general’s back.

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Instead, Carney reiterated the president's pledge to seek “accountability” for secret waiting lists at VA facilities that may have contributed to the deaths of veterans.

Carney said Obama expected a preliminary report from Shinseki “by the end of this week,” setting up Friday as a possible time for Shinseki’s dismissal.

The White House desperately wants to put to rest a controversy that is only dragging on Obama’s already low approval numbers and adding to the pessimism that Democrats can hold on to the Senate this fall.

The political stakes have been highlighted by the wave of Democrats in tough reelection races turning on Shinseki. Nearly a dozen Senate Democrats have called for his resignation, and almost all of them are up for reelection in 2014.

The calls, and a damning interim report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General on Wednesday, have led to a feeling that it is inevitable Shinseki will go. The report said that found a Phoenix-area VA clinic claimed veterans waited 24 days for care when in fact they were kept from booking a primary care appointment an average of 115 days.

“This is sort of the sad stage of the process where the embattled official is twisting in the wind and almost everyone, including usually that embattled official, the president and advisers knows that person's utility is finished,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “The question is when and how the resignation should occur.”

Many think the when will be Friday, a traditional news “dumping” ground where stories can be buried at a time when fewer people are paying attention.

“Presidents are always looking for the time this is a little less visible,” said Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer . “The less news coverage, the more you can get the story to move on, and that’s good for this administration, especially during midterm season.”

Obama has repeatedly shown a reluctance to fire Cabinet members, a tendency that could still save Shinseki.

Obama stood by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after the botched rollout of ObamaCare, and Attorney General Eric Holder amid questions over the Justice Department’s handling of the Fast and Furious gunrunning program and the subpoena of journalist’s phone records.

But in comments on the scandal last week, Obama indicated Shinseki had a shorter rope.

“Once we know the facts, I assure you — if there is misconduct, it will be punished,” Obama said. “I have said to Ric — and I said it to him today — I want to see what the results of these reports are and there is going to be accountability.”

White House officials have stressed that Obama’s primary interest is in fixing the problem for veterans as quickly as possible. If the president believes Shinseki’s removal would disrupt triage efforts designed to make sure that vulnerable veterans receive care, he may hold off — despite the political damage.

The White House will also want to find a replacement for Shinseki if he is to be fired.

“You need a good replacement ready,” said Zelizer. “You need someone when that man or woman is announced who will generate some kind of excitement and confidence the VA will look good.”

Bill Burton, a spokesman for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and the leader of the political action committee supporting his reelection effort, told CNN Thursday it might make more sense strategically to keep Shinseki aboard.

"If the president were to just fire Shinseki, it's not like Senate Republicans are going to let you put some new head of the VA in to deal with the problem," Burton said. "They're going to extract their pound of flesh and they're going to make it as difficult as possible for him."

Still, a White House official characterized the administration's approach to the VA scandal as different from the controversies surrounding Holder or Sebelius. 

While stressing that the president preferred his response to be thoughtful and measured, the official described Shinseki’s status as probationary awaiting the results of the VA’s internal investigation.

Carney, asked Thursday about Obama’s reluctance to fire people, said the president was “clear that he believes accountability’s important” — another sign that Shinseki’s days could be numbered.

“Obama hasn't really defended him in the way he defended other Cabinet officials,” Zelizer noted.