Week In Politics: Shinseki's Resignation And Obama At West Point

Regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, discuss Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation and President Obama's foreign policy speech at West Point.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For thoughts on the Shinseki resignation and the president's foreign policy speech at West Point this week, I'm joined by our Friday commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And E.J., let me start with you. The president was asked about an inconsistency today. At the beginning of the healthcare debacle, we'll remember, then, Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius offered her resignation. The president didn't take it. He said they needed her expertise. But today, Eric Shinseki took the fall. Why?

DIONNE: I think it's politics. I think one of the - first of all, Eric Shinseki is a patriot. I personally wish he hadn't, or didn't have to, resign today. If you listen to a lot of the pro-veteran or veterans groups - people who care about veterans - he had a lot of support from them. A lot of them did not join this chorus that he quit. But we are in an election year. And you saw how political this was because the Democrats who joined the chorus to say he's got to go were almost uniformly - or the great majority of them - were people on the ballot. And they just wanted something to happen, a Washington sacrificial ritual, to get him out of there. With Kathleen Sebelius, I think it was different. That was a much more partisan split at the time. And I think that Obama decided, in that case, there'd be more political damage if he got rid of her.

But what I do hope comes of this is that we start facing the real problems, and don't just focus on should Shinseki go or not. And I was really struck by a very good New York Times story today, that talked about, for example, an acute shortage of doctors, particularly primary care doctors - given the swelling number of Vietnam veterans, older veterans, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I hope we can move to the real problems now that Gen. Shinseki has done the right thing, in a way - but an unfortunate thing, I think.

BLOCK: Well, David, let me turn to you. Does this systemic misconduct within the VA, coupled with the health-care bungling earlier on - does it point to systemic dysfunction within the Obama administration, as Republicans charge?

BROOKS: Well, I certainly think it makes you ask some fundamental questions about the VA. Why do we have it? Why do we have the healthcare - separate healthcare system? Why is the - maybe it could work more like Medicare, or Medicaid - give people money to go through the private sector. Why is the Pentagon system separate from the VA system? Should they have more market-based mechanisms so you don't get this imbalance of supply and demand, which E.J. described?

The more you look into the system, the more those fundamental questions seem to arise. I'm not sure we're going to be able to deal with those questions over any short-term period. But it does seem like something deep and - deep and structural. And I'm with E.J. - I hate these bloodlettings, when you just pick on some guy and fire him for a problem that, really, is way beyond any individual's control.

BLOCK: But the broader complaint from Republicans - that this administration has fundamental problems with management - what do you think?

BROOKS: Well, I think there's some truth to that. I would say the bigger truth, frankly, is that if you have a healthcare system that doesn't rely on market mechanisms, you're going to get a situation where you have here - where you had too few people. They're not paying the primary care physicians enough within that system. The workloads are huge. And so why would anybody want to go work there when they could get a lot more money with the same or less workload in the private sector? So to me it's sheltered from the market, and that's the core of the problem.

BLOCK: Well...

DIONNE: I think - could I just say two - a couple things, quickly? One is - we have a separate VA system because I don't think market-based medicine would deal with all the problems - the particular problems - that veterans have. And you'd have to put in awfully big subsidies to pay for what needs to be done. And I'm not opposed to paying whatever it takes to help veterans - it's not clear to me that this proves the VA system doesn't work. There've been a lot of reports, before this big surge that they've had, of patients, that the VA was working - was working quite well.

BLOCK: Well, I want to move on and talk about the president's commencement address at West Point on Wednesday. He said, among other things, the U.S. is the one indispensable nation. America, he said, has rarely been stronger, relative to the rest of the world.

(SOUNDBITE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Those who argue otherwise - who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away - are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.

BLOCK: David, what's your take on that - on whether U.S. standing in the world has slipped?

BROOKS: I don't think U.S. raw might has slipped. I think economically we're still so powerful - militarily, obviously much more powerful than anybody else on the planet. I do think the willingness to use that force has slipped. And I think it comes from the president's attitudes, which were bit on display this week. The first, the fear of overreach - and that's an entirely legitimate fear after Iraq. But you also have to have fear of under-reach. For 70 years, American foreign policy has been based on a pretty assertive use of force to uphold international norms, to secure borders, to head off regional feuds. And I think President Obama has stepped back from that and signaled further stepping back from that in this speech. And that, I think, will allow autocrats to gobble up more and more of the world.

BLOCK: Well, E.J., what do you think? Should our allies feel any more or any less secure after hearing the president's speech on Wednesday?

DIONNE: I think the president did not create the war weariness in the country. A mistaken war in Iraq and the fact that Afghanistan has dragged out so long created that war weariness. And that war weariness helped elect him. And the Obama we heard is the same Obama who's been there all along. It was a speech of frustration in some ways. He pointed out that some of our most costly mistakes come from - not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures. Tough talk, he said, often draws headlines, but war really conforms to slogans. I think that it's a reasonable standard he's set. The one critique that I have read that I thought made some sense was from Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. He's talked a lot about a pivot to Asia. He could have - if he was going to talk about that, we should have heard more about exactly - what is he going to do about China? And it's really starting to flex its muscles in Asia. But I thought it laid out what he really believes and, I think, what most Americans believe after these two wars.

BLOCK: David - briefly - the last point.

BROOKS: I was just (unintelligible) to the general tone of limitation - I think that's true in the domestic policy, too. He's very aware of his own limits - limits on power. And it makes me think back to the 2000 campaign, which I now regard as one of the more - it misled us on what kind of president he was going to be. I think he's a very cautious president, whereas that campaign is anything but.

BLOCK: OK. David Brooks of the New York Times. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Thanks to you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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