McDonald supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and has donated to Republican congressional candidates, including Speaker John A. Boehner and Sen. Rob Portman in his native Ohio, and his selection marks an attempt by Obama to move the VA issue past the partisan football it has become on Capitol Hill.
As stories of bureaucratic incompetence continue to flood in — including White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors' damning June 27 portrait of a "corrosive culture" at the VA — there's no shortage of repair work to be done for an agency critical to the health of millions.
The new secretary will have to oversee an upgrade to the agency's nearly 30-year-old computer scheduling system and a culture reset, along with needing to react to investigations that now touch 77 of the sprawling VA facilities.
McDonald's confirmation can be considered all-but-assured, barring anything showing up in background vetting by Congress. His résumé as the former CEO of Procter and Gamble, one of the largest companies on earth, as well as his personal history as a veteran, probably makes him a shoo-in. He certainly could have enjoyed a far easier retirement than taking on a job that pays a fraction of corporate executive pay these days and will feature redoubled oversight from Congress.
He'll still face tough questioning about what he intends to do to fix the agency. Republicans want a deep overhaul — and many want more reliance on private care. Bills that passed through both chambers would give veterans access to private care if wait times at VA facilities drag on — although the Congressional Budget Office has warned that new entitlement could top $50 billion a year down the line.
There also remains the question of McDonald's ability to freely hire and fire employees. Critics of the VA have called for sweeping accountability and firing of any employee engaged in the falsifying of wait times and other practices.
House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said the new secretary will have to make sure the people who created the scandal are "purged."
"If confirmed by the Senate, Robert McDonald will inherit a Department of Veterans Affairs under a specter of corruption that may very well surpass anything in the history of American government," Miller said. "In order to pave the way for serious and substantive reforms that will help VA to effectively deliver the care and benefits our veterans have earned, he’ll need to root out the culture of dishonesty and fraud that has taken hold within the department."
Lawmakers from McDonald's Ohio turf embraced the nomination.
"I'm glad to see the President reach out to someone with a wealth of experience managing a complex organization who has also had a distinguished military career as a West Point graduate and Army Ranger," Portman said Sunday in a statement of support for the nomination. "While new leadership at the top of the VA is desperately needed, it is also critical that the new secretary have the necessary tools to effect change and enforce accountability, including the ability to hire and fire top VA personnel."
Boehner also endorsed the pick in a statement Sunday. "Bob McDonald is a good man, a veteran, and a strong leader with decades of experience in the private sector. With those traits, he's 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 by articulating a vision for sweeping reform."
McDonald hails from Cincinnati — the same city as Portman — and contributed $5,000 to Portman's "Promoting Our Republican Team" leadership PAC in 2012, according to FEC records. He earlier gave Portman's campaign account $3,400.
Boehner's district is just north of Cincinnati. McDonald gave a combined $11,000 to the Boehner for Speaker committee in 2012 and 2013 and has donated thousands more to his campaigns.
McDonald also gave $15,000 to the Romney campaign committees in 2012.