If it sounded familiar when President Obama vowed to fix the problems plaguing the Veterans Affairs medical system, that’s because it was.
The drumbeat of his response this week — defending the administration’s record, declaring his anger at the mess-ups, pledging to straighten things out — almost completely echoed Obama’s reaction to the fouled-up beginnings of his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
A simple quiz illustrates the point. Guess which — Obamacare or the VA — the president was talking about when he said each of the following things:
1. “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that [it] isn’t working as well as it should.”
2. ”We have to be honest that there are and will continue to be areas where we’ve got to do a lot better.”
3. “It is something that we intend to fix.”
4. “Listen, if somebody has mismanaged or engaged in misconduct, not only do I not want them getting bonuses, I want them punished.”
The answers: 1. Obamacare. 2. The VA. 3. Obamacare. 4. The VA.
Add to that the baying desire for instant solutions that attends the nation’s political controversies, and almost every crisis seems to roll into the last.
This week, calls rumbled for the firing of the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Vietnam veteran and career Army man Eric Shinseki, just as six months ago there were demands for the head of Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services who oversaw the healthcare rollout. (Sebelius eventually announced her resignation in early April, after months of sign-ups brought a more successful sheen to Obamacare.)
Nothing goes perfectly in government, to be sure; shrunken after a recession that drove public employees to the unemployment lines long after private employment began to surge, government bureaucracies can be both overworked and inefficient, as practically any trip to the DMV will reinforce.
Then too, private companies have their own problems, as auto giant GM’s spate of recalls attests.
Just as GM’s delayed reaction to problems with its cars has posed an existential threat to its brand, so too do Obama’s slow responses to crises on his watch — and the crises themselves — threaten to define Democrats as the party that can win the White House but can’t run things once it does.
More than two decades ago, trying to prevent a third successive Republican presidential victory, Democratic nominee and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis argued that the 1988 election wasn’t about ideology but about competence.
That argument didn’t work out for him; Republicans skewered Dukakis so thoroughly that what he described as the “Massachusetts miracle” became the Massachusetts morass.
But there has to be at least a veneer of competence that can bear up against the vitriolically partisan environment of today’s politics. And the danger for Obama is that while he can claim government successes — millions of people insured who were not before Obamacare, better programs for veterans now than when he took office — what can stick in Americans’ minds is the image of one mess after another.
The Democrats who try to succeed him in 2016 will not bear personal responsibility for either of the two recent crises but may get tarred with them anyway. And they will surely remain part of Obama’s legacy.
“It is, unfortunately, a sort of steady drip, drip, drip of not being able to run the federal government competently and efficiently,” Democratic strategist Garry South said. “None of it may be Obama's personal fault, but as Truman said, the buck always stops at the president's desk.”