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, Rob Nabors, White House deputy chief of staff, 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. Mr. McDonald's background is a significant departure, though he and his wife have deep family ties to the military. Mr. 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 Mr. 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."
Mr. 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 Mr. McDonald, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, finished up at the academy one year after him. Mr. McDonald and Sloan Gibson, the acting VA secretary, 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," Mr. 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."
How Mr. McDonald relates to the younger 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. Among his biggest concerns was that Mr. McDonald has not been involved with the most recent U.S. wars.
"He doesn't come from our generation. He never served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He's going to have to work very hard to get up to speed on our issues," Mr. Rieckhoff said.
He and IAVA have been very critical of Mr. Obama and former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for not meeting more regularly with the veterans community before and during the current crisis.
Mr. McDonald stepped down from his post at P&G in May 2013 amid some controversy. Analysts reported at the time that large investors and some employees were losing confidence in his ability to expand the company in the face of increasing global competition.
The Wall Street Journal and other business publications also reported that Mr. McDonald had come under fire over the time he spent serving on an array of corporate boards.
The White House has yet to select a new head for the Veterans Health Administration, which remains a priority, but top officials were particularly intent on finding a replacement for Mr. Shinseki, who resigned as VA secretary a month ago.
It wasn't immediately clear Sunday when the White House would formally send Mr. McDonald's nomination to Capitol Hill. Congress is on recess this week and returns next Monday for the rest of July before a five-week summer break, leaving little time for a confirmation hearing and a vote by the full Senate before lawmakers leave Aug. 1.