WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s pick to fix the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs is Robert McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble CEO and a graduate of West Point and the now-closed Arlington High School in Arlington Heights.
Obama highlighted McDonald’s management experience at P&G more than his military career as an Army Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division when introducing his selection for the next VA secretary on Monday.
To quickly fix problems in delivering health care to veterans, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill — and top White House aides — concluded that a new model was needed: Not a military officer but rather someone with experience in running massive, complex consumer-oriented operations.
“Bob is an expert in making organizations better,” Obama said in announcing his choice. McDonald joined P&G in 1980 and was the CEO between 2009 and 2013.
“In his career, he has taken over struggling business units.
“He knows how to roll up his sleeves, and gets to work, putting an end to what doesn’t work, adopting best practices that do, restructuring, introducing innovations, making operations more efficient and effective. In short, he is about delivering better results,” Obama said.
Obama and McDonald together walked the short distance from the White House to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters for the announcement. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, resigned in May amid an uproar over cooked books that covered up treatment delays.
Robert Alan McDonald was born June 20, 1953, in Gary, Ind., where, according to the White House, his father worked at U.S. Steel.
When McDonald was starting fourth grade, the family moved to northwest suburban Arlington Heights. Before his parents retired to Indianapolis, his father was employed at McCann Erickson and Morton Salt in Chicago.
Curious about McDonald’s Arlington Heights days, I called the folks at Township High School District 214 for a rundown. He attended Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights and was a member of Arlington High School Class of 1971. The school closed in 1984.
McDonald played football and baseball — his position was third base, according to the White House — for four years, and he wrestled one year. The varsity letterman was in the National Honor Society as a sophomore, junior and senior. He was active in Student Council and the Arlington Key Club, a service organization.
McDonald graduated from West Point in 1975 with an engineering degree, and he picked up an MBA from the University of Utah in 1978.
A White House senior official told me that McDonald’s name surfaced after White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Jeffrey Zients, the director of the White House National Economic Council — whom Obama called in to fix the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov — asked a lot of CEOs for recommendations.
The Senate is only in session for a few days this summer, but there is probably enough time to confirm McDonald if there is bipartisan agreement. With Democrats and Republicans outraged over how the VA treated vets, senators could fast-track McDonald’s confirmation vote. Also helpful: McDonald has contributed to Republicans over the years.
Obama wants to make the VA more consumer-driven, and McDonald underscored that point in his brief remarks.
Said McDonald: “At Procter & Gamble, we always focus on our customer. At the VA, the veteran is our customer, and we must all focus all day every day on getting them the benefits and the care that they’ve so earned.”