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Obama attempts to quell veterans' scandal

President Barack Obama, center, surrounded by members of the Secret Service, waves to tourists during his walk on the Ellipse in Washington, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Obama walked to the Interior Department and back to the White House after signing a proclamation regarding the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) -
President Barack Obama, center, surrounded by members of the Secret Service, waves to tourists during his walk on the Ellipse in Washington, Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Obama walked to the Interior Department and back to the White House after signing a proclamation regarding the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON - Google the phrase "Obama's Katrina," and the search engine spits out just over 35,200 results.

Opponents of the U.S. president have spared no opportunity to liken every failure — perceived or otherwise — to the disastrous New Orleans hurricane response that irreversibly weakened George W. Bush's presidency.

From the BP oil spill in 2010 to more recent problems with the launch of the Obamacare website, the deadly 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya and accusations of partisan bias at the Internal Revenue Service, Barack Obama's foes have jumped on every scandal, acknowledged or alleged, as the big one.

Despite it all Obama's approval rating, while less than stellar at 44 per cent, remains at least eight percentage points higher than Bush's at the same stage in their respective presidencies, according to the Gallup organization.

But this latest scandal could be different. Not only does it involve vulnerable people, death, administrative failure, and accusations of a coverup, it has — like Katrina — also prompted more generalized outrage.

The vitriol directed at the administration over the treatment of veterans is coming from normally kind quarters. First, there was a swear-word-soliloquy from Democrat-friendly comedian Jon Stewart. Then, on Wednesday, an on-air venting from a cable news anchor and a reporter covering the story — not from the notoriously anti-Obama Fox News, but on CNN.

"In Washington, they call this bad optics. Here, in Phoenix, they call it disgusting," reporter Drew Griffin said of fresh news that the director of the Phoenix veterans' hospital received a US$8,500 bonus last month.

That bonus came despite reports that 40 veterans had died while languishing on secret waiting lists at the hospital — waiting lists that were allegedly hidden by hospital staff through double bookkeeping and document-shredding.

The anchor at the CNN desk, Brooke Baldwin, chimed in bluntly: "It is disgusting."

News outlets around the country were jumping on the story and looking into records at federally run veterans' hospitals across the land. The Veterans Affairs Inspector General's office said 26 facilities were being investigated nationwide — up from 10 just last week.

In an attempt to quell the furor, the president promised Wednesday that anyone found responsible would be held accountable, saying he expects preliminary results from different ongoing reviews next week.

"I will not stand for it — not as commander in chief, but also not as an American," Obama told a White House news conference in his first public remarks in more than two weeks.

"None of us should. If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonourable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period."

The president's opponents, various political observers, and at least one veterans' group called his response disappointing or inadequate. Congress is also weighing legislation that would grant the Veterans' Affairs secretary more authority to fire or demote senior executives.

Some are also demanding the dismissal of the current secretary. Obama met with the embattled Eric Shinseki early Wednesday, but did not appear with him in public. The president has insisted that he only learned of the alleged coverup through recent media reports.

He did defend his cabinet secretary, however. Shinseki himself is a veteran who lost part of his right foot in combat. The president said the retired four-star army general had "put his heart and soul" into helping veterans through a variety of initiatives during his five years on the job.

That drew snarky reactions in social media — and, yes, a few comparisons to Katrina. Some likened the president's defence of his secretary to Bush's now-infamous praise of Mike Brown, his disaster-response secretary at the time.

Conservative commentator Jim Geraghty was one of several who trotted out the now-satirical Bushian phrase: "Heck of a job."

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