WASHINGTON — President Obama stopped short of dressing down his veterans affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, during a blunt hourlong talk in the Oval Office on Wednesday. But the commander in chief made clear that a growing health care scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs had put the future of Shinseki — a retired four-star general and no stranger to Washington political uproars — once again on the line.
“I said it to him today: I want to see what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room immediately afterward, referring to internal inquiries, as Shinseki quietly left the West Wing through a side door.
The president called Shinseki a “good soldier” who had put his “heart and soul” into the care of veterans, and said that “we’re going to work with him to solve the problem.” But, he repeated, “I am going to make sure there is accountability.”
It was a grim moment for the 71-year-old Shinseki, whose own disability — he lost part of his right foot after tripping on a land mine when he was a young soldier in Vietnam — makes him a client of the sprawling agency he oversees. A former Army chief of staff who famously fought with the George W. Bush White House over the war in Iraq, he is facing another dramatic turn in a career that has been filled with them.
Allegations that veterans hospitals manipulated waiting lists to hide long delays that many patients faced to see doctors have created a political storm for the Obama White House and prompted condemnations on Capitol Hill, where many Republicans — and as of Wednesday, two House Democrats, both from Georgia — are calling for Shinseki to resign.
“I respect his sacrifice, I respect what he did, but it’s under his watch that we are in this situation,” one of those Democrats, Representative David Scott, said Wednesday in an impassioned speech on the House floor. “Mr. President, we need urgency!”
Self-contained and introverted, Shinseki is regarded by friends and detractors alike as “dignified,” the word most often used to describe him.
But the health care scandal has become fodder for late-night television — never a good development for survival in Washington — and even some admirers wonder how long he will last.
In Senate testimony last week, Shinseki proclaimed himself “mad as hell,” which prompted Jon Stewart, the host of the “Daily Show,” to pillory him on Monday night.
“Your ‘mad as hell’ face looks like your ‘Uh-oh, we’re out of orange juice’ face,” Stewart said.
To Peter Feaver, a Duke University specialist on military affairs who called Shinseki “a good man without a finely attuned political sense,” that is a bad sign. “When you are the whipping boy of the Republicans and Jon Stewart, you’ve got a problem,” said Feaver, who advised President George W. Bush.
Known by the nickname Ric and in his sixth year running the veterans agency, Shinseki was until now best known in Washington for infuriating Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, by predicting that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed in postwar Iraq.
The assertion left Shinseki ostracized by the White House, but when he stepped down in 2003, Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, predicted that history would vindicate him.
And it did: In 2007, Bush, confronting growing chaos in Iraq, built up American troops there to more than 160,000.
“General Shinseki was right,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said at the time.
Now Republicans — perhaps sensing an opportunity to go after Obama in this midterm election year — are hardly coming to Shinseki’s defense.
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Republican senators convened a news conference, with one after another using the case to lash out at Obama.
“Somebody needs to be in charge at the White House, and somebody needs to start taking responsibility,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.
Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, an orthopedic surgeon, said that Obama’s remarks at the White House were simply a “restatement of exactly what Secretary Shinseki said.”
On Wednesday evening, the House voted 390 to 33 to pass a bill giving Shinseki more authority to fire or demote career employees who may have been involved in misconduct.
The Senate may take up hearings on the legislation soon.