'Ebola czar' brings decades of Washington experience

'Ebola czar' brings decades of Washington experience
Ron Klain has been appointed director of the Obama administration's Ebola strategy. (Revolution LLC)

The man tapped to be the country’s “Ebola czar” is a veteran Washington advisor and Democratic strategist who will oversee a multi-agency response to the outbreak in West Africa and the U.S. cases, the White House announced Friday.

In a change from a career spent mainly behind the scenes, Ron Klain becomes the Obama administration's point person leading a complicated and highly-visible government Ebola strategy.

Klain, a longtime confidant to Democratic presidents and presidential candidates, brings to the job an in-depth knowledge of federal agencies and processes, former colleagues said.

Republicans, however, challenged the appointment, calling him a political appointee with little relevant medical background.

"What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert but rather an implementation expert, and that's exactly what Ron Klain is," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday. "He is somebody who has extensive experience in the federal government. He's somebody that has extensive management experience when it comes to the private sector."

Klain previously served as chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden, and currently is president of Case Holdings and general counsel for Revolution LLC, a venture firm founded by Steve Case, the former chief executive of AOL. He will take a leave of absence from the firm to accept the new position, the company said.

The goal of the new position is to coordinate response to the cases in the United States while maintaining efforts in West Africa, the White House said. Klain will report to Homeland Security advisor Lisa Monaco and national security advisor Susan Rice.

The government’s Ebola response now encompasses a wide array of federal agencies, from medical research facilities like the National Institutes of Health to the U.S. military, which is helping with relief efforts in West Africa.

President Obama created the job Friday after a Senate hearing Thursday in which lawmakers criticized Ebola efforts, including those led by U.S. Centers for Disease Control head Thomas Frieden, as inadequate. The government’s response has come under fire since two Dallas nurses were infected with the deadly virus while treating a Liberian man who presented the first case of Ebola diagnosed on American soil.

After the hearing, Obama said he would consider appointing a director to ensure government efforts were well-coordinated.

"It may make sense for us to have one person to have a more regular process just to make sure that we're crossing all the T's and dotting all the I's," he told reporters Thursday.

But the president's choice Friday has not gone without criticism. Klain's lack of specific medical experience and his ties to the Democratic Party made him an easy target for Republicans.

"This appointment is both shocking and frankly tone deaf to what the American people are concerned about," Rep. Tim Murphy (R- Penn.) said in a statement. "Installing yet another political appointee who has no medical background or infectious disease control experience will do little to reassure Americans who are increasingly losing confidence with the administration's Ebola strategy."

Colleagues who worked with Klain said they expected him to handle the logistical, not the medical, response to the epidemic.

"I do expect that the medical experts will still deal with the medical issues," said Neera Tanden, a former advisor to the president on healthcare reform.  "But it's important to have someone who understands what the public could be worried about tomorrow or the next day."

Though Tanden said she was unsure whether the White House would make Klain the public face of the Ebola response, she said he had experience communicating with the public and would understand how important outreach would be.

Most important, she said, he had the experience necessary to manage a complicated federal process.

"I think at this point in the public health challenge we're facing with Ebola, it's a multi-agency issue," she said. "It's a significant management issue, and Ron Klain is a fantastic manager."

Others cited Klain's close working relationship with both the president and the vice-president as an asset.

"He has a very good personal relationship with [Vice President Joe] Biden and with the president, and that close personal relationship will give him the influence he needs and the credibility he needs," said Brian Boyle, a former legal colleague of Klain who attended law school with him.

An attorney, Klain has had a long career as a trusted aide to Democratic presidents. In the Clinton administration, he worked as chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. Under Biden, he coordinated the launch of the 2009 Recovery Act, the Obama administration’s national stimulus package intended to spur job growth nationwide.

Apart from policy decisions, Klain has been equally active behind the scenes in Democratic politics, helping candidates Obama, Clinton, Gore and John Kerry in debate preparations. He also helped lead the recount effort for Gore in the 2000 election, which led to a moment of celebrity when Kevin Spacey portrayed him in an HBO television movie.

People familiar with Klain's background say that his experience in Washington will serve him well yet his status outside the  administration will enable him to get things done.

“He’s not a part of the bureaucracy, so he can come in and stomp on bureaucratic toes if that’s what it takes to get action here,” said Evan Bayh, a former Indiana senator who knows Klain well. “He’s a short timer, so he can make tough decisions and cross bureaucratic barriers to get people to collaborate and get the job done.”

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