We don't normally expect our presidents to pay close attention to how long veterans are being asked to wait for care in the vast medical system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But we do expect presidents to appoint Cabinet officers and other aides who can run the federal government well -- well enough, at least, to prevent full-blown scandals from erupting.
That's what the VA's long-running scheduling problems have turned into after reports that veterans died while waiting for medical care -- and bureaucrats apparently manipulated records to make their performance look good when it wasn't.
No one can read the stories of individual veterans who suffered at the hands of the bureaucracy -- like Edward Laird, a 76-year-old Navy veteran who lost half of his nose because he had to wait two years for cancer tests -- without feeling helpless fury.
And those stories are certain to keep coming.
It's an especially dangerous scandal for President Obama because it fits into an established narrative about his presidency: that he's a skilled politician and speechmaker but a lousy manager.
The biggest problems Obama has faced in the White House -- aside from unrelenting opposition from Republicans in Congress -- have come not from making policy but from trying to implement it. The calamitous launch of his healthcare plan last fall is the biggest and most painful example, but it's only one of several.
The president's conservative critics have accused him, often wildly, of every sin they can think of, from diabolical conspiracy (in the case of the IRS) to dereliction of duty (Benghazi). But the charge that's likely to stick is one that connects all those unrelated events to an underlying truth: Obama has never paid as much attention to the nitty-gritty of management as he has to making policy and campaigning for votes.
"Presidents get elected because of their rhetorical skills, but they succeed or fail based on their managerial skills," warned Elaine Kamarck, a former White House aide to Bill Clinton who directs a center on public management at the Brookings Institution.
Bad management alienates even a president's allies, Kamarck noted.
"His popularity can go down and stay down," she said. "That's what happened to Jimmy Carter in the last year of his presidency. That's what happened to George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina."
And now "that's the narrative about Obama. It's the narrative even among Democrats. They're beginning to say, 'Oh, we love everything he says; we just wish he could get something done.'"
In the case of the VA health system, problems many of us are learning about now have long been evident but never quite got fixed. The VA knew that some of its medical centers had piled up huge backlogs in patient appointments by 2011. So if Obama only learned of the depth of the problems from watching TV, as his spokesman said last week, something is amiss with his administration's internal communications.
Two weeks ago, Obama created a White House post -- deputy chief of staff for policy implementatio.
Good call. Too bad it came too late to help some of those vets.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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