Dennis Culloton, President & CEO

When is it time for the top executive to take center stage in damage control? This question is asked in every war room where crisis managers try to control stories. But it seems clear President Obama’s team has underestimated the size, scope and longevity of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) crisis.

The story has taken a life of its own but it appears the president’s advisors tried to shield him from the scandal. The crisis has been unfolding since January, when CNN and other media outlets began reporting of military veterans dying while on waiting lists for medical treatment.

Since then, the story has grown to include reports of whistle-blowers telling of secret lists being compiled to doctor the outcomes data. These are worst-case-scenario allegations at a time when our men and women are still serving in the Afghanistan theater and the American people are war-weary.

The president’s Veteran’s Affairs Secretary, former four-star general Eric Shineski, put more pressure on the White House. Shineski failed to convince Congress and the American public that he should avoid blame. The combat veteran, who lost part of his foot in a Vietnam battle when he tripped a landmine, famously ended his military career when he challenged then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s deployment of manpower to the Iraq war. General Shineski is now in the line of fire in a different way. A decorated patriot, his agency’s scandal provides partisan Republicans with a platform to attack the president. The cool-under-fire personality that led men into battle is a cold comfort on the public stage so far; even to liberals, like late night comic Jon Stewart who said Shinseki’s “mad-as-hell face looks a lot like (his) ‘Oh, we’re out of orange juice’ face.”

The lack of a strong public presence is a sad reminder that in a time of crisis, a technocratic response–even if it is proper–can be overwhelmed by the leadership vacuum.

So the problem becomes the president’s to own and solve. This story has given cover to whistle-blowers across the country who report similar abuses at other VA Hospitals, including Chicago.

The West Wing was not the only institution to underestimate; veterans’ organizations were also surprised. Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina blasted them for not calling for Secretary Shineski’s resignation.

This story worsens by the day. But the past is prologue. The history of VA scandals and abuses goes back to the treatment of World War I veterans. There are no easy solutions, but crisis managers in the White House would be well served to review history–a frequent mistake made in politics, government and business. This is not the first time a giant institution has let its constituents down. Firing a few mid-level bureaucrats won’t do. Cautious, surface level changes will do little to change the health care system for America’s finest. These answers need to come in a public process that instills confidence. There is little to be gained in arguing the system works. It doesn’t and it hasn’t ever. And for Congressional critics, at what point will the American people ask for more than just criticism, but real answers?

Update: On Friday, May 30, 2014 both Eric Shinseki and White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, announced their resignation.