MSNBC Panel Admits VA Scandal A 'Political Problem' for Obama, 'Confidence is Lost'

During a panel discussion on her 12 p.m. ET hour MSNBC show on Wednesday, host Andrea Mitchell wondered why President Obama chose to make a statement on the Veteran's Affairs scandal without having any significant reforms to announce: "Why send the President out to say something about the VA when he's not ready to take bolder action?" [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

Chief White House correspondent and political director Chuck Todd acknowledged: "Well, this was an attempt, I think, to stop the political bleeding that was taking place....that this has become a political problem for the White House. The President himself hadn't spoken on it publicly since [his trip to] Asia...about three, four weeks ago. So there needed to be a sense of he had to come out and say something."

Minutes later, Mitchell quoted Arizona Senator John McCain reacting to the President's remarks: "While I am glad that after many weeks of refusing to acknowledge the widening scandal, President Obama finally saw fit to speak about it today, his remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health care system."

Retired Colonel Jack Jacobs, an NBC military analyst, agreed with McCain's assessment: "...the response itself is effectively too little, too late. The President should have been – should have been talking about this for a long time, ever since it began....And the President should have been talking about the VA, and done something about it long before now. So John McCain is right."

Turning back to Todd, Mitchell observed: "Chuck, this feels a little bit like the health care situation, the management issue, as to how the President addresses a problem when there's someone close to him, a cabinet secretary whom he likes and admires and respects, who is not managing."

Todd replied:

[Obama] ran as somebody that was going to be more professorial...about it. He wasn't going to, you know, as always describes it, play the Washington game, feed the beast. But there is a sense on this one where the confidence is lost. And I think that, that to me, seems to be the disconnect from the White House right now to the perception that's out there. You know, I think the White House thinks they're dealing with a Washington problem right now. This is not a Washington problem. This is every veteran in America is watching this...

Mitchell briefly hoped an upcoming report from the Veterans' Affairs inspector general could be a "turning point" for the administration. Chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski promptly shot that down: "Nobody has a lot of confidence in just about anything the VA sets out to do."

Jacobs rounded out the discussion by predicting: "[Obama] does have a serious political problem....he's got a big, big problem – the Democrats do – with respect to this, among all veterans when elections come up in November."

It will be interesting to see if NBC and the other broadcast networks frame the ongoing scandal as a "political problem" for Obama, given that criticism of commander-in-chief has been left out of most of the coverage thus far.


Here are excerpts of the May 21 segment:

12:02 PM ET

(...)

ANDREA MITCHELL: Chuck Todd, let's talk about why the President came out. Why send the President out to say something about the VA when he's not ready to take bolder action?

CHUCK TODD: Well, this was an attempt, I think, to stop the political bleeding that was taking place, if you want to look at this – and I apologize for using sort of things like that when we're talking about serious medical issues that veterans have to deal with every day.

MITCHELL: But it's a metaphorical expression.

TODD: It is a metaphor. And that is what's going on here, is that this has become a political problem for the White House. The President himself hadn't spoken on it publicly since Asia. Okay? And the trip to Asia, which for me feels like months ago, it was about three, four weeks ago. So there needed to be a sense of he had to come out and say something.

You know, this is – there are going to be people who are saying, "Why isn't he firing Shinseki? Why isn't he doing something more dramatic to at least give a sense of urgency to solving the problem?" And a sense of buying political time.

You know, the more politically expedient thing to do would be to hang Shinseki out to dry, find somebody, say a Ray Ordierno or somebody like that, that brings some stability – political stability to the situation. But if you look at – this is his pattern. He never does this. It's always very, very – always a more drawn-out process. He almost gets his back up the more people tell him, "You must feed the political beast."

MITCHELL: Well, Jim Miklaszewski, you had the series of interviews General Shinseki, you know him well. He told you he's not going anywhere. But this is after, of course, the false promise, if you will, the fake resignation last week, when as it turned out the deputy in that VA who supposedly resigned last week with some fanfare from the White House, actually had resigned – submitted his resignation months ago and was already replaced in terms of another nominee going up. So, again, why do this, this sort of minimal announcement at the White House today?

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: Well, that episode last week, when they put the deputy up as what many called a scapegoat or sacrificial lamb was really almost laughable. And I think the VA got stung pretty badly for trying to pull that one off.

(...)

12:05 PM

MITCHELL: Now, Colonel Jack [Jacobs], I wanted to bring you in to ask you, first of all, about John McCain's response, his initial response today. Let me read this, here's an excerpt. "While I am glad that after many weeks of refusing to acknowledge the widening scandal, President Obama finally saw fit to speak about it today, his remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health care system."

As a medal of honor recipient and someone who served in Vietnam, was wounded in Vietnam, dealt with the VA system in medical procedure after procedure, what is your response to what happened today?

JACK JACOBS: Well, I think John McCain is – I don't always agree with him, but he had a very interesting point there. And that is, that the response itself is effectively too little, too late. The President should have been – should have been talking about this for a long time, ever since it began. Don't forget, we had big problems not that long ago when the wait times at the Veterans' Administration was as long as two years in some cases. It's been halved, it's much lower, but it's still much too long. And the President should have been talking about the VA, and done something about it long before now. So John McCain is right.

(...)

12:10 PM

MITCHELL: Chuck, this feels a little bit like the health care situation, the management issue, as to how the President addresses a problem when there's someone close to him, a cabinet secretary whom he likes and admires and respects, who is not managing.

TODD: Well, I mean, you could also apply the same thing to Syria, right? There is always this – he's very, you know, this is – but this is how he ran. Okay? He ran as somebody that was going to be...

MITCHELL: No drama Obama.

TODD: ...more professorial – more professorial about it. He wasn't going to, you know, as always describes it, play the Washington game, feed the beast.  

But there is a sense on this one where the confidence is lost. And I think that, that to me, seems to be the disconnect from the White House right now to the perception that's out there. You know, I think the White House thinks they're dealing with a Washington problem right now. This is not a Washington problem. This is every veteran in America is watching this and is relating to it, even if it's not the specific incidents that are taking place about this. They're relating to it, "You know, yeah, why doesn't the VA do this?" And I think that that's where they're missing. Confidence is lost. Is Shinseki able to restore that confidence?

Now, I understand it, the President, there's almost – also remember, too, a lot of Democrats, General Shinseki was a very important political touchstone when he turned on the Iraq war and he turned on President Bush. So there is this-

MITCHELL: And got forced out by Donald Rumsfeld.

TODD: That's right. So there is this sense of loyalty to him, too, for, you know, what he's given to this country. And you get that. And you could hear that in the President's voice. He was walking that line. But there's no – you can feel the lost confidence at the VA. I don't know how he – how he continues.

MITCHELL: Jim Miklaszewski, the IG testified last week, is there confidence at the Pentagon, and among vets whom you speak to, that the IG can fix this problem and can come out with a report that will be credible and that that will be the turning point?

MIKLASWESKI: Nobody has a lot of confidence in just about anything the VA sets out to do.

(...)

12:11 PM

MITCHELL: Colonel Jack Jacobs, at this stage, what would you do if you were advising the President?

JACOBS: I'd tell him to do exactly what he's doing for the time being. Don't forget that he is a lawyer and he is going to wait until the investigation is over before he does something. He doesn't like – he's the kind of person who doesn't like to do anything precipitously.

But he does have a serious political problem. One thing that Chuck said really resonates, and that is that veterans, whether you're – even if you're getting great care from the VA, we all perceive that we're all in it together. And if I'm getting great care from the VA, I feel really badly for those veterans who are not. And I think that he's got a big, big problem – the Democrats do – with respect to this, among all veterans when elections come up in November.

MITCHELL: Jack Jacobs, thank you so much. And Jim Miklaszewski and Alex Nicholson and Chuck Todd.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC