“Resignation Lets Obama Off The Hook”
—Headline on a Washington Post front page feature on Department of Veteran’s Administration Secretary Eric Shinseke’s resignation on Friday, May 30, by reporter David Nakamura.
I almost called this an unethical quote, rather than putting it in the broader, kinder category of a statement that raises ethics issues.
The headline is unethical in the sense that it indicates once again what I have long decided is the case: the news media, journalists, editors and reporters, couldn’t identify most ethics issues if you painted one orange and hung it around their necks. Has anyone at the Post heard of the principle of accountability? That is, accepting that you are responsible for what has gone wrong under your management as well as what has gone right? President Obama has been shameless in taking bows for the few accomplishments his sad administration can legitimately claim, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, which was the result of an ongoing operation to which his primary contribution was in not lousing it up. Sometimes, as in his jaw-dropping foreign policy speech at West Point last week, Obama recasts his nonfeasance and misfeasance as success, as he did regarding U.S. handling of the Ukraine, Syria and Iran. When his leadership really produces a pratfall, however, the reflex Presidential response has been to blame Republicans, or George W. Bush.
This has been, in fact, the attempted spin on the VA scandal. The inconvenient facts in making that case: 1) Obama promised to fix the VA ; 2) the scandal involved possible criminal activity on his watch; and 3) his appointed Secretary’s response was Obama-like, in that he acted as if he was a casual, uninvolved bystander in the mismanagement of his own department.
Isn’t it obvious to the Post, the headline writer, everyone, that nothing Shinseke did, from resignation to a self-immolating mea culpa to seppuku could “let Obama off the hook” for a catastrophe of this magnitude, in his Administration, under his leadership, delegated to a man he appointed? How can anyone who understands anything about accountability, leadership and management think that?
This reporters seems especially clueless. The article seems like yet another effort to make excuses for the President’s incompetence. Here’s sentence to ponder (the emphasis is mine):
“Obama, like other presidents before him, has generally been loath to quickly fire his top advisers, in part, experts said, because such a move could be viewed as an admission of his own mismanagement.”
1. “Like other presidents before him,” so it’s OK: “everybody does it.” How dare anyone criticize this President for being a lax supervisor when other Presidents have been just as bad? The article then makes a point of noting that Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest Democrat of them all, also didn’t fire advisors often. Of course, few President have collected such flamboyantly incompetent Cabinet members, so the comparison is inapt, as well as a rationalization.
2. Shinseke’s a cabinet secretary, not just an “advisor.” Presidents can ignore bad advisors (if they have any sense). Cabinet secretaries have are independently responsible for large and important management responsibilities affecting lives. Indeed, as a manager and Shinseke’s supervisor, Obama’s job is to advise him. This is spin, obfuscation and misleading reporting.
3. What “experts” say this? Name them, so I know the reporter isn’t making this up. Not firing incompetent and failing managers isn’t just a refusal to admit mismanagement, it is mismanagement. Leaders who refuse to fire subordinates when the press and the public are screaming for their heads are either 1) bravely keeping effective managers whom they rightly trust; 2) stubbornly refusing to acknowledge a mistake; 3) weak, being lazy and irresolute.
Meanwhile, the article makes it clear that Obama still didn’t want to fire the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and that Shinseke “let him off the hook” by insisting on a resignation. This, in truth, places Obama’s unwillingness to lead in the spotlight. Can an action by another simultaneously put a leader’s incompetence in the spotlight but take him “off the hook”?
The headline, in the end, expresses the futile and naive wish of an unethically biased newspaper.