Tuesday, June 3, 2014

President Obama as Chief Executive: Missing the Fraud at the Veterans Administration

Buffeted with a whirlwind of criticism in the wake of revelations of widespread fraud in VA Hospital and outpatient clinic wait times, President Obama somewhat sheepishly admitted during a news conference on the matter that he had heard nothing of the practice on his travels around the country. With at least one instance of false scheduling at 65% of the facilities between September 30, 2013 and March 31, 2014 and 13% of schedulers being instructed in how to falsify wait-times,[1] it is odd that word had not reached the president’s ear. Maybe this is not so odd after all, for the president’s domestic trips tended to be oriented to campaign fundraisers and speeches oriented to proposed legislation. In other words, the president—and Barak Obama is hardly alone here—put his legislative role above that of his office as chief executive.

It is worth noting that the legislative role of the American federal president is negative in that the power is exercised by vetoing legislation. To be sure, the president is constitutionally encouraged to make recommendations through the State of the Union report made to Congress. Even so, the extent of time and attention that presidents have directed to pushing favored legislative bills go beyond making recommendations, and thus the opportunity cost (i.e., foregone attention to other matters, such as managing the executive branch of the U.S. Government) is not justified. Put another way, having two branches focused at the top on legislating is not only redundant, or overkill; the joint focus leaves the executive branch without a chief except in parchment.

This is not to say that proactive rather than veto-based presidential involvement in the legislative process cannot bear fruit. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president for much of the Great Depression in the 1930s, expended tremendous effort in seeing to it that his New Deal programs were legislated into actuality. In an “exit-interview” at the conclusion of decades in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan) calls FDR, “The Giant, one of probably the three greatest” presidents in American history.[2] In dull contrast, Dwight Eisenhower was a “fine chairman of the board, . . . but didn’t do much.”[3] This stinging critique implies that the managerial imprint translates into lethargy or at least a lack of accomplishment.

Relatedly, Dingell criticizes Jimmy Carter for not being able to see the forest even as he could see every tree in the woods.[4] While a president as presider should have his or her eyes on the big picture, protecting society and the systems of business and government as wholes from actualizing systemic risk, the president as chief executive should focus on trees relative to society as a whole—that is, relative to the orientation in presiding. To be sure, the focus of the particular agencies is considerably narrower, and no CEO rightfully gets hung up at that level—but neither does a CEO focus on society at the expense of the business itself. Carter took micromanaging to the extreme, personally approving even the White House Christmas cards. As dysfunctional as this is for a chief executive, equally problematic is a president who acts as if he or she were a Congressional leader, or else privileges his own presiding over managing. Yet legislating and presiding have come to swallow up the very notion of the American presidency—Rep. Dingell’s comments illustrating this default.

It hardly bears mentioning that for a politically-oriented person, running around the member states making speeches oriented to a vision of society is unquestionably more exciting than exercising executive responsibilities. As a result, it has been all too easy for the campaign-oriented people who have occupied the Oval Office to effectively leave the mammoth executive branch without a CEO or managerial chairperson—a decision that tacitly enables the sort of widespread fraud as was found in the Veterans Administration in 2014. It is fanciful to suppose that word of even such a widespread managerial practice would somehow show up on a rope-line as a celebrity president is passing by. Yet in his news conference on the fraud at the VA, President Obama saw no such disjunction. Instead, he sought to appear as managerially on top of the intricacies of the VA scheduling process.

I suspect that the encroachment of campaigning over governing has a correlate in the White House, wherein legislating has come to crowd out the executive functions. Perhaps the Electoral College was established in part so a good executive rather than a good campaigner would have a chance at the office; the increasing salience of the popular vote being like a storm’s wave washing over everything else and thus effectively establishing the sort of person who would get the prize. Relatedly, the underlying problem doubtlessly includes the character flaw that too easily ignores some of a job’s responsibilities in selfishly favoring others. In other words, we can indeed blame Barak Obama and many of his predecessors for slighting their managerial responsibilities across the executive branch in order to have more influence (i.e., legislatively). Ironically, fewer speeches on pending legislation would have much more currency and free up the president to manage the executive branch. As for the quite legitimate presiding role that is literal to the presidency itself, catastrophic threats to the systems of business, government, and society do not arise every day; the role does not “eat” a lot of time on a daily basis if understood correctly instead of applied to every symptom that pops up on an oversensitive radar-screen. Leaving legislating largely to Congress, a presiding president would likely find that he or she has enough time to manage the executive branch effectively, assuming an optimal mix of direct supervision and delegation is applied. Generally speaking, balance and proper boundaries would do a lot of good, yet unfortunately human nature may be more schizogenic than homeostatic—more maximizing (e.g., desire) than oriented to equilibrium.

[1] Meghan Hoyer and Gregg Zoroya, “Fraud Masks VA Wait Times,” USA Today, June 3, 2014.
[2] “John Dingell Rates the Presidents,” USA Today, May 2, 2014.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.