WASHINGTON (USA Today) -- President Obama said Monday he picked former CEO Robert McDonald to head the Veterans Affairs Department because his extensive management experience is needed to address problems at VA medical facilities.
"He knows the key to any successful enterprise is staying focused on the people you're trying to serve," Obama said during a ceremony at VA headquarters. "Bob is an expert at making organizations better."
McDonald, 61, a West Point graduate and Army veteran as well as former chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble, would take over a department wracked by mismanagement and criticism over long wait times and inadequate medical care at VA facilities.
The furor forced the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.
"Let me state the obvious," Obama told McDonald. "This is not going to be an easy assignment. Bob knows that."
McDonald, saying he was honored to be nominated, pledged "a VA that is more effective, more efficient, and that truly puts our veterans first."
The veteran, he said, "is our customer."
In his remarks to VA employees, Obama said he is instituting new rules so that anyone caught acting improperly — including falsifying records to improve the record on wait times — will be held accountable.
While the department has done excellent work over the years, Obama said, "we've got to change the way the VA does business ... we've got to fix some things that are broken."
White House officials said McDonald's management experience drove Obama's decision to select him.
"Those management chops are going to be critical to his success and they're going to be critical to ensuring that our country lives up to the commitment that we've made to our men and women in uniform," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Because of new rules limiting filibusters, Senate Republicans would be unable to block McDonald's nomination even if they were inclined to.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio — who hails from the Cincinnati area, where Procter & Gamble is located — endorsed McDonald, citing his experience "managing a complex organization."
The new VA secretary "will face significant challenges because of the systemic problems throughout the VA and their mismanagement of veterans' health services," Portman said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and has been an outspoken critic of the VA, praised the McDonald nomination and said, "I am hopeful today's announcement will spark long-overdue change from the top-down in order to ensure our veterans are getting the care and support they expect and deserve."
Obama's selection of McDonald, who has no political experience, surprised lawmakers, veterans groups, and experts in the field.
Obama was clearly looking "outside the box" in tapping McDonald to lead the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, said Nancy Berglass, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy group.
"I had not even heard of his name as a candidate until he was picked," said Berglass, who is also director of the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, a private grant-making group that serves families affected by those two wars.
Many said it was a savvy move to put an ex-Fortune 500 chief at the helm of one of Washington's biggest bureaucracies, one that's been wracked by mismanagement and scandal.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a veterans advocacy group, said he doesn't think McDonald's military service or political record will be a hindrance. He said McDonald's five-year stint in the Army is actually more in line with most veterans -- who leave the military after a few years and go on to other careers -- than with leaders like Shinseki.
Besides, "the problems at the VA aren't military," he said. "They're civilian management problems, and what the VA needs is a strong manager."
Last week, White House adviser Rob Nabors and Sloan Gibson, the acting VA secretary, delivered a report to Obama citing "significant and chronic system failures" within the veterans health care system.
Some of the findings are "totally unacceptable," Obama told Veterans Affairs employees.
"We're instituting a new culture of accountability," he said.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau