GWEN IFILL: It’s raining, it’s pouring. Eric Shinseki is out, just as the Obama administration tries to change the narrative about its own competence. We ask: How’s that working out? Tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) A few minutes ago Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted.
MS. IFILL: Heads roll at the VA with new evidence that its health care system has hurt the veterans it exists to serve. But that wasn’t the week’s only challenge.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.
MS. IFILL: A big foreign policy speech meant to turn the page didn’t. A new plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2016 drew critics.
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R-NY): That just gives the enemy the opportunity to plan their strategy.
MS. IFILL: NSA leaker Edward Snowden pointed fingers.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: (From clip.) When people ask, why are you in Russia, I say, please, ask the State Department.
MS. IFILL: And the secretary of state rose to the administration’s defense.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: (From clip.) I don’t think the president, frankly, takes enough credit for the successes that are on the table right now.
MS. IFILL: Blame, credit, the price of the presidency. Tonight we look at the president at a crossroads, with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico, Michael Crowley of Time magazine, and Christi Parsons of Tribune newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. I’ve asked this question before and I’ll ask it again: Why does anyone want to be president? The week started out well enough for President Obama, with a surprise visit to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) I know it’s a little late, but I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by.
MS. IFILL: But after that, it was headache after headache. Embarrassment. Disgrace. Uncertain allies and enemies. National and international security. And, of course, plain old garden-variety politics. And that’s just the stuff we know about. So we thought we’d put it all in a little context tonight.
First, the resignation of Veteran Affairs – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki this morning.
SECRETARY ERIC SHINSEKI: (From clip.) We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans health facilities. That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable.
MS. IFILL: It became clear today that in the end, it was the political clamor from Democrats as well as Republicans that was going to force Shinseki out. In Washington parlance, they are known as distractions. The president’s admitted as much to Christi Parsons.
CHRISTI PARSONS (From clip.) So is, you know, lopping off the head of it really the best step to take going forward here? Is there – what I’m asking is, is there a political reason for removing him, other than going straight to the problem – (inaudible)?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) Well, the distractions that Ric refers to in part are political. He needs to be – at this stage what I want is somebody at the VA who’s not spending time outside of solving problems for the veterans.
MS. IFILL: It sounds like we’ve been here before, haven’t we, Christi?
CHRISTI PARSONS: It does feel like that, doesn’t it? Because it wasn’t that long ago that heatlthcare.gov was melting down and the Health and Human Services secretary was – everyone was calling for her head, and the president said, you know, sorry, we want to – I want to keep her in place and figure this out. The thinking –
MS. IFILL: In fact, that was the question you asked the president today, what was different about Kathleen Sebelius’ situation and Eric Shinseki’s. And what was the answer?
MS. PARSONS: Well, his answer was a little perplexing because what he said was, distractions in both cases is what he was trying to avoid. With Sebelius, her departure would have been the distraction, and with Shinseki, his remaining there was a distraction. I think what he was really trying to say – he did actually admit, yes, politics are at play here, that’s part of why this is more complicated. What he didn’t say was it’s because the Democrats are after Shinseki, when they really weren’t going after Sebelius.
MS. IFILL: Carrie, how big of a deal was this, actually, and what difference will it make if just the head of the snake is chopped off – to put it in that very lovely, lyrical way that Christi did?
CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: I think for now it allows the White House to calm the tempers of the media. There was a lot – the whole focus this week was, what is the president going to do with Shinseki. The way they handled Shinseki this week was so different than the way they’ve spoken about other Cabinet secretaries who have been under siege. It was striking in the press briefing room this week when Jay Carney would not say whether the president still had confidence in Shinseki. That’s a stark contrast to when he was asked about Holder, Eric Holder, the attorney general, in the past; Sebelius; Steven Chu. They’ve always said they had total confidence. So this was a lingering problem for the president. I don’t think they could have gotten beyond it politically within the White House.
But in terms of substantively with the problems at the VA, it doesn’t change much of anything. In fact, they have put in someone as an acting secretary who has only been there in the position for three months, so you’re going to have a learning curve. The president admitted as much today.
MS. IFILL: As we watched – late this afternoon the White House put out a photograph of the president saying – basically delivering the bad news to Eric Shinseki in a walk on the South Lawn at the White House shortly before he made the announcement. He’s clearly saddened about this. But the problem, Peter, seems to be so much bigger than anybody’s even beginning to acknowledge.
PETER BAKER: Well, I think that’s right. And the problem for this administration is this is –there’s some difference than the previous furors and controversies they’ve had to deal with, over Benghazi or over, you know, the IRS or whether they’re tapping into reporter phones and so forth. The issue here is something that affects people that are pretty much universally revered in American society today, people that President Obama himself sent overseas and have come home.
And that’s the tissue that connected this whole week. As you point out, he starts the week in Afghanistan, he announces a withdrawal, he goes to West Point, and at the end of the week he’s saying we’ve got to take care of the people I’ve just been talking to. And – because that goes beyond conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat kind of partisanship. That’s the danger for this administration; he’s trying to get in front of it.
MS. IFILL: So Michael, if he’s trying to get in front of it, does he get in front of it by just trying to eliminate the distractions? Is that what he was trying to do today?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think the hope would be that you essentially had a fire that you put out with his departure. And, you know, there may be a feeling among some Republicans that it was nice to have a kind of piñata up there to keep the story alive. You know, I think that the problems at the VA are mind-numbingly complicated. It’s a severely dysfunctional –
MS. IFILL: And predate this administration.
MR. CROWLEY: – bureaucracy. They predate this administration. They go way back. There were already problems before we were swamped by veterans from two wars in a bureaucracy that wasn’t prepared for them. It was another way in which this country did not prepare for the decade after 9/11.So – but there may be Republicans who feel like having the human drama end, which was the most accessible way for people to understand this – is he going to stay, is he going to go, is the president going to fire his subordinate, it’s a great story – will defuse it and we will go back to the, you know, unfortunately unsexy and frankly, unfortunately, dull bureaucratic question of these wait times and how do you solve it.
And so probably it’s a smart political move for the White House.
MS. IFILL: In fact, one of the things I found most interesting about this is that the reason why these wait times – these books were cooked is because they were trying to live up to the last set of reforms they put in place by setting deadlines and numbers for the Veterans Administration some years ago, only to find out that in fact by – to meet those numbers, to meet those deadlines, they just made up the numbers. They just cut them off.
MS. BUDOFF BROWN: Yeah, exactly. And I think that Shinseki acknowledged today that that’s probably not the way it should be. I imagine that with these reports that are still going to be forthcoming from the president’s adviser who he sent to the VA to look at this will all have to be – these are things he’s – the president is going to have to answer for. It’s not over.
Now the spotlight does go back to the president in terms of Republicans being able to sort of pin it on him, you know, put it in terms of a question of his competence. So it does shift the spotlight a bit.
MR. BAKER: That competence issue is the bigger threat here, right? It’s one thing to say, well, we don’t like the president because we don’t agree with his policies. But when you start to question a president’s competence, that’s dangerous territory. President Bush found that with Hurricane Katrina. He had a hard time getting the public faith back after that. President Obama had this problem with health care, and this now, you know, adds to that.
MS. IFILL: Now, to point this – John Boehner today, John Boehner came out afterward, and he’s one of the people who had said, I don’t know what it will help to get rid of Eric Shinseki. But after Shinseki was fired, this is what he had to say:
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From clip.) General Shinseki has dedicated his life to our country and we thank him for his service. His resignation, though, does not absolve the president of his responsibility to step in and make things right for our veterans. Business-as-usual cannot continue.
MS. IFILL: So what he’s clearly trying to do here is say, yeah, well, that’s fine, but what about the president?
MS. PARSONS: Right. And the president was quick to reach out and embrace the Hill, too, and try to pull them back into the story as well. I mean, aside from changing the culture at this administration – at the VA, he was also saying we need to spend more money, we need more doctors, we’ve got this flood of vets coming back from Afghanistan with these very serious problems, we need more money, and now let’s talk about that.
MS. IFILL: You know, as Peter pointed out, this is just the – one of the headaches. This is one of the big problems, but it speaks to the other issues, the competence issues, which keep dogging this administration. I sat down with Secretary of State John Kerry this week to talk about Afghanistan and Ukraine and Syria and Nigeria and why the administration seems to be consistently between rocks and hard places; for instance, on the stalled Middle East peace process that Kerry tried to revive.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: (From clip.) My job is to push it forward. My job is to try to find the optimism and the possibilities, not to give up. And I refuse to give up. I think that, you know, we have to find the way ahead. This hasn’t gone away in 40, 50 years, and it’s not going to suddenly just sort of solve itself by itself. That’s our job, is to try to push the process forward.
MS. IFILL: It occurred to me later that the frustration that I heard in the secretary’s voice could apply to all of the Obama administration’s foreign policy dilemmas; couldn’t they, Michael?
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, it’s the gift that keeps giving, isn’t it? It’s been – it’s been an unfriendly world. On the peace process specifically, you know, there’s a saying that says we can’t want it more than the parties do. And if you listen to Martin Indyk, who’s the chief U.S. negotiator for Kerry, came back and gave a kind of exit speech, a recap, really, in his view, it sounded like neither side was really ready for it. So I think that the secretary of State is being optimistic there, but I don’t see a lot of reason for optimism.
And there is just great frustration in the White House right now. They can’t a win on foreign policy anywhere. They – there are some reasons for hope in Ukraine, that Putin maybe has stepped back from the brink. We can talk more about that, of course. And they are hoping they’ve turned the page in Afghanistan. That’s good news. The big question will be – July 20 is the deadline for the interim deal with Iran and the nuclear negotiations. And that really seems like the one remaining obvious opportunity for the president to have a big foreign policy victory that could make up for a lot of these disappointments so far.
MS. IFILL: The case that the president makes, Peter, about Ukraine and about Syria, actually, is that things are better than you think. We actually did do the right thing in order to get Putin to stand down in Ukraine. And in Syria, we have eliminated 92 percent of the chemical weapons. Assad is still in power, but hey, this is not a small thing.
MR. BAKER: It’s a terrible bumper sticker to put on your – back of your car, it could have been worse. And that’s kind of where he’s at right now in foreign policy, much like he was with the economy when he was running for re-election. You know, the economy’s kind of puttering along. In fact, we did learn this week it kind of shrank in the first quarter, and the idea that we avoided worse outcomes is not very satisfying either to him, much less to his – to his opponents.
And I think with Russia, the – and certainly with Syria, the jury is still out. We’re going to see next week when he goes to Europe. But the Russians haven’t necessarily given up on making things difficult in Ukraine. Just this week, they shot down – separatists shot down a helicopter with a Ukraine general onboard, so there’s a lot of – a lot of hardship still ahead.
MS. IFILL: Christi, the West Point speech, in which the president was going to lay out – again – his vision for foreign policy, did it accomplish what they intended?
MS. PARSONS: Well, I don’t know if it did or not. I think it – it certainly didn’t quell the criticism of the president’s foreign policy, right?
MS. IFILL: Nothing will.
MS. PARSONS: But I – and probably nothing will. It seems like what the president’s really frustrated about right now is that average Americans don’t understand where he’s going with this, and I think this really was a speech in some ways designed to appeal to the people who really have lost their appetite for war, who really can maybe connect with the idea that maybe things could have been worse.
He’s still sort of searching for a way to express that that people can rally around, and that speech didn’t contain it.
MS. IFILL: Carrie, is this one of – you have a piece popping up on – popping up on Politico this weekend about the way the administration has been coping with all of its setbacks and steps forward in the past several years. Is this the kind of thing where they just feel like nobody gets us, they just don’t understand what we’ve accomplished?
MS. BUDOFF BROWN: Yes. And we’re seeing that on the domestic front, too. The fact that the president – you know, he’s had to turn to his own administration to get things done: executive actions, doing things on his own. And they really feel like they don’t get the credit they deserve for having taken certain steps and doing things without Congress because everything in Washington is viewed through the lens of what goes through Congress.
Nothing’s going through Congress. There’s frustration in the White House. You know, this piece that we’re, you know, posting this weekend, it’s a look at the president and where he is at this point in his second term. And there’s a paradox that emerges.
I mean, he is clearly frustrated, but he’s also more liberated than he’s been, that we’ve seen, you know, in the past six years. He’s approaching his job differently. Aides like to say this is a president who doesn’t do things much differently today than he did, you know, the first day he walked into office. Well, he does. He’s approaching them differently. It’s about being – realizing his time is limited, and wanting to do certain things before he leaves. Close eye on the clock, but realizing his power’s pretty limited at this point.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the straw man argument, the idea that he sets up things like we don’t have to be – put boots on the ground everywhere . Well, no one’s asking him to put boots on the ground anywhere. But then he says this is the other solution. Is that an argument that can endure? Is that just a strategy to get through these next couple of years?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it might be the best he’s got. You know, the old saw is that the memo – the State Department says we have three options: one is global thermonuclear war, the other is total surrender; and option C is our State Department policy proposal. And that’s kind of what the president is doing. He’s setting up these false choices.
He took a lot of criticism for doing that in this speech. The speech was roundly panned. I actually wrote a round-up and I read several editorial pages and columnists. It was hard to find positive opinion; a small minority.
So I think that that argument is probably the best he can do. There’s not a clear Obama doctrine. You can’t put it on a bumper sticker. Don’t do stupid stuff, he allegedly says, is a pretty low bar for success.
In some ways, I think he is blessed by some of his critics, like Senator McCain, who, I think says – speaks from principle and speaks from his heart and really believes that we should be using our military much more, shall we say, freely than we do, and he does set up a counterpoint for the president to say there are these people who want to be bombing and invading all over the place, and that’s crazy talk. I think Senator McCain is not in step with where the majority of Americans are. So there are – there are people out there that the president is responding to who allow him to set that up, but I think he exaggerates the differences.
Last thing I’ll say very briefly. I think there’s another Syria crises coming. The chemical weapons removal deadline is not going to be met. It appears that there were chemical weapons that the Assad regime did not declare and there are ongoing chlorine attacks apparently by the regime in the country. There’s a U.N. team investigating them now. It looks like, I think, administration officials expect they will come back and say chemical attacks are still going on, and we’re going to have that red line conversation all over again.
MS. IFILL: And next week, an election in which Assad clearly will walk back into office for another term. OK, but on this end – and you touched on this and Kerry talked to this too – Congress is – for instance, the president, as part of his plan this week, said I’d like to be able to aid and arm the rebels, which a lot of people have been asking to do in Syria. But it requires congressional agreement.
Is there any room for congressional agreement anymore on anything?
MS. PARSONS: I can’t imagine that there is. I mean, every effort to produce it fails, so it’s hard to imagine that. And I didn’t hear anything. I was really looking in this speech for some sign that the president might open a door to more action in Syria because it does seem like there’s a debate taking place within his administration. So actually, I was going to direct this question to you and see if you’re hearing the same thing and if what we’ve heard Sam Power and John Kerry say publicly in the last few days has made you think that really there might be something under consideration in the White House that’s – something to indicate that was the president said about arming the opposition means some substantial movement.
MR. CROWLEY: It’s very opaque. I think the debate is still ongoing. There are people like Secretary of State John Kerry pushing for more action. In that speech, the president suggested we would ramp up support for the rebels.
MS. PARSONS: Right.
MR. CROWLEY: The key point right now seems to be whether the Pentagon would start training some of these vetted moderate rebels, and you have to do that in conjunction with Congress.
After the president’s speech, a senior administration official did a conference call with reporters and wouldn’t really be clear on this point to the point where one reporter on the call said I don’t think we’re hearing a straight answer here. And to me, my sense is that haven’t made up their mind inside the White House how hard they want to push that, and they have to do it with Congress. So it’s not an easy answer. So the bottom line is still very unclear.
MS. IFILL: Let’s go to the 30,000-foot level here because it’s – when you stop and think about it, this week, we saw Edward Snowden break his silence and come out and basically accuse his country of betraying him instead of himself of betraying the country. We saw the administration admit there’s very little they can do to help rescue those Nigerian girls because we just keep going around in circles. Humanitarian crises in Syria, in Sudan, in all kinds of places in which this administration would like to have some sort of impact, but it feels like we’re playing small ball, the base hits question.
The president fell into a lot of sports metaphors with Steve Inskeep on NPR this week – (laughter) – talking about blocking and tackling on foreign policy and base hits. Is – are – has this transformational presidency that was once promised turned into kind of a bit-by-bit-by-bit?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Transformation is over, we’re now in increments, and – singles and doubles, right? That’s what he says. And, you know, I was struck by your interview with John Kerry, right? He asked you to turn the cameras back on because he forgot to say and he wanted to say, oh yeah, he could hit a home run from time to time, but in fact, they’re not looking at that. They’re looking at a very minimalist, what can we do not to mess things up further than they are; don’t do stupid stuff. And it’s not inspiring, it’s not riveting as rhetoric. It may be sensible in a – in a world of constraints and challenges and so forth.
I think nobody in America feels that the situation in Nigeria isn’t horrible, and yet, there’s not a great appetite to send in, you know, the 101st Airborne or something at this point.
MS. IFILL: Carrie, do we talk – see them trying to reframe the debate? Is there an effective way that they’ve identified about how to do that?
MS. BUDOFF BROWN: I think they’re continuing on this sort of path where they’re – you saw the president try to pull back from him being tagged as sort of just a singles and doubles kind of president, but in reality, that is what it is, and they’re just going to continue on that path trying to hit – get – advance the ball –
MS. IFILL: Is that him or is it the nature of the presidency?
MS. BUDOFF BROWN: It’s definitely the nature of the presidency in a second term. I think in some ways, the president’s responsible for where he is now. He’s trying to rectify that a little bit by doing a little more outreach with Democrats on the Hill to maybe make some advances.
But it’s – you know, it’s – by and large, it’s a second term phenomenon. I mean, there are, you know, normal things for the second terms to have to do these small things. So I don’t think that’s –
MS. IFILL: Briefly.
MR. CROWLEY: There could still be a home run in the form of an Iran deal. That is the one –
MS. BUDOFF BROWN: Sure. Yeah.
MR. CROWLEY: – potential salvation. The long ball in the air, to mix metaphors like the president did, could be caught in the end zone, and that would change this – we’d be having a very different conversation in a few months.
MR. BAKER: Because it tells you that’s his best hope. That’s his best hope.
MS. IFILL: You guys have completely broken all my rules against sports metaphors. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Sorry.
MS. IFILL: Just because he does it doesn’t mean we have to. I appreciate it. Thank you everybody. We have to leave you a little early tonight, so you get the chance to support your local PBS station, which in turn supports us.
But the conversation continues online, where the Washington Week Webcast Extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Among other things, we’ll talk about another surprise resignation today, of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.