In times of crisis, President Obama can be counted on to concentrate power in the White House. Trouble with the Obamacare website? Information technology czar. Auto crisis? Recovery czar. There’s even an Asian Carp czar. No, seriously.
The Ebola crisis, apparently, will be treated no differently. On Friday, the president announced the appointment of political and policy operative Ron Klain as “Ebola czar.” (But the White House prefers to call him its “Ebola response coordinator.”) That’s after a series of high-ranking public officials were already slotted by the Obama administration for roles in coordinating the response to the disease. The choice of Klain, a former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, is a sign the Obama administration views Ebola as primarily a governmental and bureaucratic problem rather than one requiring medical expertise.
Klain, who also served as a top lawyer for the 2000 Gore Recount Committee and helped Obama with presidential debate prep in 2012, joins an existing band of doctors, public health experts, and scientists who have been battling to stop the outbreak for quite some time. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began holding weekly press conferences on the epidemic in June, weeks before the World Health Organization declared it a worldwide health emergency.
Now two nurses at Texas Presbyterian Hospital have been infected after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian who was hospitalized in Dallas after becoming the first person to be diagnosed with the disease in the United States. He died October 8. A report Friday from the World Health Organization estimates 9,191 cases and 4,546 deaths so far in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.
With the spread of the disease in the United States, more leaders have stepped in to join the fight. Among Dr. Frieden’s counterparts in the relief effort are National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, Director of HHS Preparedness and Response Robin Robinson, and Assistant Commissioner in the Office of Field Operations at Customs and Border Protection John Wagner. That’s not to mention Obama’s Homeland Security adviser, Lisa Monaco, who is coordinating the efforts of all the agencies just listed.
The appointment of one person to lead the fight against Ebola at home illustrates just how focused the United States remains on the domestic response. Obama and Frieden have told the public repeatedly that zero risk at home is unattainable until the outbreak in West Africa is contained. So while focusing all our energy and resources here may make sense in the moment, it doesn’t bode well for our future safety. The appointment of Klain to lead the effort is giving the public what it wants—but not what it needs.
“This is not simply charity,” Obama told the press this week of the United States’ outreach of support to West Africa. “Probably the single most important thing that we can do to prevent a more serious Ebola outbreak in this country is making sure that we get what is a raging epidemic right now in West Africa under control.”
Arguably the more important people in the United States’ Ebola response are Ambassador Nancy Powell, who Obama appointed to coordinate the diplomatic fight against Ebola, and Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, who is overseeing the U.S. Army Africa and Operation United, to ramp up the medical intervention in Liberia.
Powell and Williams, whose appointments received not even a fraction of the attention of Klain’s, are tasked with topping the epidemic at its source. Until their mission is complete, the United States—and every other country in the world—remains at risk. “This is the key way to bend the curve,” Powell told The Daily Beast of the mission abroad in a September interview. “To break the trend is to isolate the people.”
The appointment of the new Ebola czar comes after Republicans began demanding a White House point person on the threat.
Sens. Jerry Moran, Rob Portman, and John McCain, as well as Reps. Jack Kingston and Frank Wolf, have all called for a czar to lead the administration response.
“I would say that we don’t know exactly who’s in charge. There has to be some kind of czar,” McCain told CNN last weekend.
Moran and Wolf wrote a letter to the White House to suggest that the president bring in “former administration officials with a background in public health and international diplomacy,” suggesting former secretary of state Colin Powell, former secretary of defense Robert Gates, and former health and human services secretary Mike Leavitt as candidates.
The Republican reaction is starting to shift from calls for a czar to calls for a different czar.
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, was among the first politicians to call for an Ebola czar. But upon the appointment of Klein to that role, he criticized the choice as “political” and unserious.
“Without the right person in charge, I am concerned the President’s appointment of a political ally will only add to the bureaucratic inefficiencies that have plagued Ebola response efforts thus far. He must be able to cut through red tape and make unbiased decisions across multiple agencies —the buck has to stop with him,” Moran said.
Klein’s appointment was evidence that the Obama administration was not treating the Ebola threat “with the seriousness it deserves,” the Kansas senator added. “This is a real crisis and worthy of an individual with extensive background in international diplomacy, experience coordinating large-scale interagency missions, as well as a proven ability to work with Congress and across the aisle.”
Ironically, the Obama administration was forced to battle a Republican czar panic in the early days of its administration. Republican politicians condemned the appointment of White House officials, calling czars “unconstitutional,” while conservative figures fumed at the appointment of a green czar and a manufacturing czar.
Sen. Ted Cruz carried on that tradition Friday, telling The Daily Beast in a statement: “We don’t need another so-called ‘czar’; we need presidential leadership. This is a public health crisis, and the answer isn’t another White House political operative. The answer is a commander in chief who stands up and leads, banning flights from Ebola-afflicted nations and acting decisively to secure our southern border.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said it was appropriate to appoint a point person to coordinate the response but took issue with Klain’s lack of specialized expertise.
“Given the mounting failings in the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak, it is right that the president has sought to task a single individual to coordinate its response,” Royce said Friday. “But I have to ask why the president didn’t pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background.”