President Obama will name former vice presidential chief of staff Ron Klain as Ebola “czar” to coordinate the administration’s response to the disease, part of a White House effort to calm fears and quiet criticism about the government’s ability to stop its spread.
Klain, a longtime Democratic political operative, is trusted within the White House as a smart political crisis manager and administrator with experience coordinating government bureaucracy. Included in his long resume of troubleshooting posts is a stint as Vice President Al Gore’s top legal advisor during the 2000 election recount. (Klain was played by Kevin Spacey in the HBO movie “Recount.”)
The president is in need of such experience. Obama has been under pressure to take more dramatic action as worries about the spread of Ebola have grown -- and spilled into campaign season politics.
Republicans have pounded the Obama administration for a series of missteps after the first diagnosis of the deadly virus last month. This week, after two nurses were found to have contracted Ebola, the president canceled two days of political events, held a series of meetings at the White House and called foreign leaders to discuss the fight against the widespread Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
A House hearing Thursday did little to calm criticism about health authorities’ response to Ebola. An administrator at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, which diagnosed the first case in the U.S., admitted mistakes but has blamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for issuing confusing and contradictory guidance. CDC director Tom Frieden gave no clear explanation for why his agency allowed a nurse who contracted the disease from the patient to fly with a low-grade fever.
One prominent health office didn’t immediately embrace the White House decision to anoint an overseer.
“I don’t know exactly what is meant by a czar but we will certainly follow the lead of the president,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Klain has no medical expertise and his deep political ties may leave the White House open to the accusation that it is more focused on the politics at play. But his choice seems to reflect the White House urgency to make a public change that could demonstrate it has regained its footing in the crisis – while giving the job to a trusted operator. The move nearly mirrors Obama’s response to the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov website, when he named Jeffrey Zients, a former budget official, to coordinate the site’s reboot.
In announcing the new post, a White House official said Klain would be responsible for coordinating the government’s “efforts to protect the American people by detecting, isolating and treating Ebola patients in this country” and to ensure that effort doesn’t “distract from the aggressive commitment to stopping Ebola at the source in West Africa. ”
That role until now was held by White House homeland security advisor Lisa Monaco, but in comments Thursday night, Obama said he might consider appointing a czar and noted that Monaco, Frieden and others involved have additional responsibilities.
“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 Ts and dotting all the I’s,” Obama said.
Klain will report to Monaco, as well as National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the official said. The job will not require confirmation by the Senate.
For Klain, the post marks a return to the White House after three years. He left Vice President Joe Biden’s office in 2011 for the private sector and was a partner at the Washington lobbying firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP. He is president of Case Holdings, the company that manages the business and philanthropic interests of former AOL Chairman Steve Case, and general counsel at Revolution LLC, a technology-oriented venture capital firm.
FOR THE RECORD
Oct. 22, 11:40 a.m.: This story incorrectly referred to O’Melveny & Myers LLP as a Washington lobbying firm. O’Melveny & Myers is a law firm.
This post was originally published on Oct. 17 at 7:52 a.m.
Klain also served in the Clinton administration, first as chief of staff for Attorney General Janet Reno and then Vice President Al Gore. Prior to that he worked as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and staff director for the Senate Democratic Leadership Committee.
With the midterm elections less than three weeks away, it’s unlikely that Klain’s appointment will be free from GOP criticism.
Some Republicans, most prominently Arizona Sen. John McCain, pushed for the appointment of an Ebola czar, but most have focused their criticism on the president’s resistance to enacting a travel ban on passengers from affected countries in West Africa. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has urged the president to consider the move, and several GOP lawmakers on Thursday began pushing for a vote on the issue.
Although the White House has said a ban is not being considered, Obama appeared to soften that stance Thursday when he said he could be persuaded to enact travel restrictions in the future if his medical advisors recommended it.
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