WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama today will nominate Bob McDonald, a West Point graduate who served as chief executive of Procter & Gamble, to take over as head of the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, according to White House officials.
The unorthodox pick of a retired corporate executive whose former company makes iconic household products such as Tide detergent and Charmin toilet paper — rather than a former military general — underscores the serious management problems facing the agency charged with serving more than 8 million veterans a year. On Friday, the White House deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, submitted a report to the president finding "significant and chronic system failures" and a "corrosive culture" at the Veterans Health Administration, which has come under fire for record-keeping that was skewed in an effort to cover up the long waits imposed on former troops seeking medical care.
In recent years, the job of VA secretary has been filled by retired generals, medical professionals or politicians. McDonald's background is a significant departure, though he and his wife have deep family ties to the military. McDonald graduated in the top 2 percent of his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and served in the Army for five years, achieving the rank of captain in the 82nd Airborne Division before taking an entry-level job at P&G. He is the son of an Army Air Corps veteran of World War II, and his wife's father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war.
"The choice suggests a real focus on customer satisfaction, as opposed to what you might get from a retired general or medical leader," said Phillip Carter, who follows veterans issues for the Center for a New American Security. "It is probably a wise choice given the concerns right now of veterans."
In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, usually an administration critic, hailed McDonald's experience as a veteran and as a leader in the private sector, calling him the "kind of person who is capable of implementing the kind of dramatic systemic change that is badly needed and long overdue at the VA. But the next VA secretary can only succeed in implementing that type of change if his boss, the president, first commits to doing whatever it takes to give our veterans the world class health care system they deserve."
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman praised Obama for selecting "someone with a wealth of experience managing a complex organization who has also had a distinguished military career."
McDonald, 61, graduated from West Point in 1975 and is about the same age as most of the senior generals in the Pentagon with whom he would have to work closely in the coming years. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, graduated from West Point one year before McDonald, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, finished up at the academy one year after him. McDonald and acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who is expected to serve as his deputy, were West Point classmates.
"McDonald is right in the sweet spot of the current four-stars in the Pentagon," Carter said. "He's got that social connective tissue with them. The VA is more like a big business than a military organization, so his background probably makes him more qualified to run the VA than a retired general officer."
Retired Maj. Gen. James "Spider" Marks, who served as a cadet with McDonald at West Point, described him as "an incredibly gifted guy" who stood out among his classmates for his intensity and commitment. Marks, who now serves as an executive dean at the University of Phoenix, said that during the recession, when McDonald was under pressure as P&G's CEO, he had to be "delivering numbers every day" but also took steps to cultivate senior managers who could steer the firm through the fiscal crisis.
McDonald stepped down from his post at P&G in May 2013 amid some controversy. Analysts reported that large investors and some employees were losing confidence in his ability to expand the company in the face of increasing global competition.
How McDonald relates to the population of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — smaller in numbers compared with the overall group of veterans but powerful politically — will be critical if he is confirmed.
Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he had mixed feelings about the choice. "He's got a good military record and a history of running a large bureaucracy, but no medical background," Rieckhoff said.
Rieckhoff said that among his biggest concerns was that McDonald has not been involved with the most recent U.S. wars.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said that if McDonald is confirmed, he will inherit an agency "under a specter of corruption."
"The only way McDonald can set the department up for long term success is to take the opposite approach of some other VA senior leaders," Miller said a in a statement. "That means focusing on solving problems instead of downplaying or hiding them."