This Memorial Day President Barack Obama is overcompensating in light of the Veterans Affairs Administration scandal over withholding health care at local VA hospitals. First Obama spoke about the scandal at the White House on May 21, 2014 weeks already after the scandal broke, where he promised he "will not tolerate it." Then on Saturday, May 24, 2014 the president issued a Memorial Day edition of his weekly address mentioning the administration's commitment to veterans' health care. On Sunday, May 25, 2014 Obama also made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to visit the troops there again reaffirming the pledge to support the veterans' health care and transition to civilian life. Finally on Monday, May 26, 2014 on Memorial Day itself, Obama participated in the annual ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Four hours after returning from his surprise visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Obama attended along First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden a wreath-laying ceremony to honor Memorial Day at the Arlington National Cemetery. The children of fallen soldiers were also in attendance at the ceremony, they had been participating in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) 20th Annual Good Grief Camp. Prior to the ceremony the president held a Memorial Day breakfast at the White House for families of fallen soldiers and veterans. Later at the ceremony President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before delivering some remarks, where he avoided the burgeoning Veterans Affairs scandal.
In his remarks Obama honored the sacrifices of fallen soldiers for their country, and delved into the history the holiday, and recounted specific anecdotes, stating; "The fallen patriots we memorialize today gave their last full measure of devotion. Not so we might mourn them, but we do. Not so that our nation might honor their sacrifice, although it does. They gave their lives so that we might live ours, so a daughter might grow up to pursue her dreams, so that a wife might be able to live a long life free and secure." Continuing Obama expressed; "Everything that we hold precious in this country was made possible by those who gave their all. And because of them our nation is strong, safer and will always remain a shining beacon of freedom for the rest of the world."
The president speech was almost entirely devoid of any mention of the scandal except, he alluded to it, by make a promise to veterans; "We've been reminded in recent days, we must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families, and make sure they get the care and benefits and opportunity that they've earned and they deserve. These Americans have done their duty. They ask nothing more than our country does ours, now and for decades to come." The only real reminder of the scandal was VA Secretary Eric Shinseki presence at the ceremony. The scandal revolves around the VA altering records of extra long-wait lists veterans seeking health care are subjected to waits that have been so long that some veterans died before receiving the care they needed. Republicans and veterans organizations have been calling for Shinseki's resignation.
This year's Memorial Day marked the 150th anniversary of Arlington Cemetery and the last year of the 12-year War in Afghanistan. President Obama again declared that "Our troops are coming home. By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to an end." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also delivered remarks where he noted this year also marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day the major turning point in World War II. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey also delivered some remarks at the event.
Earlier in the morning Vice President Biden hosted with his wife the launch of the Ride 2 Recovery Memorial Challenge at his official residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The challenge is a six-day bike ride for veterans from Biden's residence to Virginia Beach. Biden was more contrite and when delivering some remarks and directly brought up the scandal and veterans' health care, stating; "That is a sacred obligation, and we're behind right now. The VA is having problems, and we've got to get to the bottom of it…. This is a long-term commitment this nation has to make, so it seems to me on this day we as Americans have to recommit ourselves not just with words but with deeds."
On Sunday morning, May 25 President Obama visited the troops in Afghanistan on the last Memorial Day weekend where troops will be actively engaging in a war in that country. In a visit that lasted on only 32 hours from the time he left the White House until his return, Obama spoke to over 32,000 service members at Bagram Airfield primarily thanking them for their service, expressing; "I'm here on a single mission. That is to thank you for your extraordinary service. I thank you as your commander-in-chief because you inspire me. Your willingness to step forward and serve in a time of war and say, 'Send me,' is the reason the United States stays strong and free."
In his speech Obama recounted the purpose; the 9/11 terrorists attacks by al Qaeda and accomplishments of the war against the terrorist organization and the Taliban, ensuring that Afghanistan will "never again, ever be used to launch an attack against our country." Obama continued that "after more than a decade of war, we're at a pivotal moment…. And by the end of this year, the transition will be complete and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security, and our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end." Obama also expressed to the soldiers that "We support you. We are proud of you. We stand in awe of your service." And that they should be "proud because you are completing our mission. You're completing the mission."
President Obama also discussed his hopes that Afghanistan's newly elected president will sign the bilateral agreement with the U.S. which will "preserve all the gains that you have helped win" and allow a security force of U.S. troops to remain past this year, where they will primarily train Afghan troops. The president stated; "With that bilateral security agreement, assuming it's signed, we can plan for a limited security presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. We want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win." Still Obama promised that "Now, even as our combat mission ends later this year, I want everybody to know, in this country and across the region, America's commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure."
President Obama addressed the VA scandal a bit, only in context of the country's pledge to take care of the veterans once they return home; "We're going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans. Because helping our wounded warriors and veterans heal isn't just a promise, it's a sacred obligation." Obama's pledge was not only regarding healthcare about reintegration into civilian life; "As you come home, some of you will return to civilian life, and we want to make sure you can enjoy the American Dream that you helped to defend. So with the transition assistance to help you begin the next chapter of your life -- that's going to keep America strong."
While at Baagram the president spoke with commanding Gen. Joseph Dunford and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham. Obama did not however, meet during his short trip with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who opposes allowing U.S troops to remain the country after the official departure day at the end of 2014. Karzai refused Obama's request for a meeting because he would not meet him at a U.S. military base. Although a White House official stated; "The President will likely be speaking by phone with President Karzai in the days to come, and also looks forward to working with Afghanistan's next President after the election is complete."
The president's presence was not the only surprise Obama had for the stationed troops, country singer Brad Paisley accompanied the president and performed. Obama's was also accompanied by his national security team; "National Security advisor Susan Rice, senior White House advisor John Podesta, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, and National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes." Rhodes told the press the trip was "an opportunity for the president to thank American troops and civilians for their service."
Before Obama's trip departure the White House released on Saturday morning, May 24 President Obama's Memorial Day themed weekly address entitled "Paying Tribute to our Fallen Heroes this Memorial Day." In the address, Obama recounted the history and purpose of the holiday, but also discussed to a limited extent the VA scandal again only in terms of reaffirming the country's pledge to take care of its veterans. Obama re-expressed that promise; "In recent weeks, we've seen again how much more our nation has to do to make sure all our veterans get the care they deserve. As Commander in Chief, I believe that taking care of our veterans and their families is a sacred obligation. It's been one of the causes of my presidency. And now that we've ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they've earned."
A month after news broke of the scandals with the Veterans Affairs Administration, and three weeks since his last action President Obama finally broke his silence about the scandal, although Republicans and Democrats alike found that the president's response did not condemn the actions of the VA enough and opposed his praise of the VA secretary at the heart of the scandal, Eric Shinseki. The allegation revolves around 40 deaths at a Phoenix, Arizona VA hospital that resulted from extra long wait lists for health care, the hospital then fudged their books to not appear as though the deaths were a result of waiting too long for essential care. There have been additional allegations at different VA hospitals being reported. President Obama first made comments on April 28, and then ordered Shinseki to conduct a review on May 8, but has mostly stayed out of the line of the scandal's fire, leaving the dirty work of defense to his administration.
President Obama condemned the alleged wrongdoing, strongly declaring; "When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct -- whether its allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times, or cooking the books - I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief but also not as an American. None of us should. If these allegations prove to be true it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period."
The president however, does not plan to take any action until the findings of the investigation and review are completed, stating; "I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. Once we know the facts, I assure you if there is misconduct it will be punished." Obama has put his deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors in charge of the official review of the VA and will provide recommendations as well as Shinseki, who reviewing the VA's health care, the president should have the results during this upcoming week. The president however, promised; "I want to see, you know, what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability."
In what seemed as a defense of the VA Obama noted long delays in VA health care is not new; "Keep in mind, though, even if we had not heard reports out of this Phoenix facility or other facilities, we all know that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need. That's not a new development. It's been a problem for decades, and it's been compounded by more than a decade of war." The president also defended Shineski despite repeated calls for his resignation, saying; "The responsibility for things always rests ultimately with me as the president and commander in chief. Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran, and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki."
Instead the president criticized the Republicans blaming them already for making this a partisan political issue; "It is important that our veterans don't become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now." The president concluded his defense of the VA by stating that "there are millions of veterans who are getting really good service from the VA, who are getting really good treatment from the VA. I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of folks in the VA who are doing a really good job and working really hard at it."
Republican Congress leadership; Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, R-OH, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY found Obama's response "insufficient." McConnell's statement argued; "A crisis of the magnitude facing the VA on providing care to our veterans demands clear leadership from President Obama. Unfortunately, so far I have yet to hear from the president that he is treating the VA crisis with the seriousness it deserves." While Boehner stated; "the administration's failure to resolve these problems is a far cry from the personal responsibility he promised."
The harshest rebuke came from Sen. John McCain, R-AZ., who said Obama's statement was "wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health care system…. According to the latest reports, 26 VA facilities nationwide are now being investigated, and this Administration's ineffectual response has created a crisis of confidence in our veterans' community. We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we've seen from the Obama Administration to date.
Despite President Obama's claims, there is bipartisan opposition to the VA's actions and the president's response. Sen. Richard Blumenthal's, D-CT response was even more fired up than McCain, who as veteran takes the situation personally. Blumenthal charged; "We have more than allegations at this point, we have evidence, solid evidence, of wrongdoing within the VA system. It 's more than an isolated incident -- it's a pattern, apparently, of manipulating lists, gaming the system... which is not just an impropriety or misconduct, it is potentially a criminal act."
President Obama will delve further into foreign policy and the military's future in Afghanistan in a speech he will give at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's commencement on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Meanwhile however, according to a new CBS News poll Americans place the largest percentage of blame at 33 to Shinseki and the VA, 28 percent on local VA hospitals and 17 percent on Obama. Republicans attribute a greater responsibility on the president with 30 percent, 31 percent on Shinseki, and local VA hospitals at 28 percent. While blame was divided, what was overwhelmingly agreed upon is Shinseki has to go with 45 percent support.
President Obama should know from past experiences that blaming the Republicans and burying a wrongdoing or a scandal is not going to end the problem. No matter how much he tried to make it up to veterans this Memorial Day weekend, the scandal is not going to be forgotten just like that. This is not the disastrous rollout of his healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act last October 2013 where the Marketplace did not function, and early on the administration preemptively repaired the damage without anybody's life being on the line, and the only damage, was monetary, embarrassment, and millions of Americans experiencing computer and technical frustration. Here there were 40 deaths possibly more happened, this is an after the fact scandal, it is impossible to rectify and sweep under the rug and attribute blame on the Republicans and as much as President Obama would like it and it will not go away without strong accountability and presidential condemnation and responsibility.
President Barack Obama's Remarks on Memorial Day, May 26, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.