Gen. Eric K. Shinseki

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki

Yesterday’s announcement that President-elect Obama plans to nominate Gen. Eric K. Shinseki offers a good illustration of multiple layers of politics factoring into cabinet nominations. The press widely reported on the symbolism of Shinseki’s nomination – the circumstances surrounding his retirement as Army chief of staff, his status as a long-time military veteran, an Asian-American, and a fellow Hawaiian by birth. Politico summarizes: “The surprise pick adds yet another heavyweight to the Obama cabinet, and also takes a not-so-subtle slap at President Bush’s original national security team.”

Shinseki is also an experienced and respected administrator preparing to lead the second largest federal government department (with 260,000 employees), consisting of several large government bureaucracies including the Veterans Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration, the vast network of health care facilities serving veterans at 1,400 sites around the country.  Like other large health care networks, VHA has undergone some fairly dramatic organizational changes over the last two decades and faces problems common to other health system, such as chronic nursing shortages. Like other cabinet appointments, Shinseki’s nomination represents the beginning of a broader effort to staff-up the agency – the secretary is one of 17 Veterans Affairs Department appointees subject to Senate-confirmation.

By at least one account, the VA’s scope and complexity contributed to the departure of former RNC chairman and second Bush Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson (Jan. 2005-Oct. 2007) . From the New York Times:

Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars, described Mr. Nicholson’s time on the job as “kind of rough.”…“He came to the job with no real experience about what Veterans Affairs was about,” Mr. Wallace said. “I thought that was very positive because I thought that would mean he would ask a lot of questions and delve into things.” But Mr. Wallace said Mr. Nicholson’s unfamiliarity with how the department worked “overcame” him, adding that he “was gradually getting there” by the end of his tenure.”

Shinseki will approach the unwieldy VA administrative structure with greater experience and authority. Though the challenges will be no less daunting, he presumably also will  enjoy the support of a president who has built his “good government” rep in part on services to vets. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder notes:

When Obama was elected to the Senate, he asked to be on the Veterans Affairs committee, much to the surprise of some on his staff. In late 2006, Obama aide Robert Gibbs told me that one of his boss’s top legislative priorities that next year would be an overhaul of VA health care. (At the time, Gibbs and other Obama advisers were participating in very preliminary discussions about a presidential run, but no one, Gibbs included, expect it to happen.)

I asked Gibbs what Obama considered to be his greatest accomplishment of his first two years. Probably, he said, working with Dick Durbin to persuade the federal government to revise its disability care standards to extend the umbrella of coverage of thousands of Illinois veterans. Obama authored legislation to provide more money to help soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and wrote an amendment to increase funding for homeless vets. promises to expand VA facilities, reform VHA health care services, and improve the administration of veterans’ benefits. This letter from advocacy organization Veterans for Commons Sense offers a perspective on the challenges facing Shinseki and the Obama administration. This GAO report examines the challenges VA faces in the administration of veterans’ benefits.