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Obama Taps Government Insider as Ebola Czar

Weeks before the elections, Obama is set to create the post to help manage Ebola response in the US, where a total of two people are known to have contracted the disease.
October 17, 2014, 11:20pm
Photo via CDC Global

Ebola's emergence in the United States has officially been politicized.

Three weeks before the midterm elections, President Barack Obama tapped longtime Democratic strategist Ron Klain, a lawyer and former chief of staff to vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, as his Ebola czar to manage the administration's response to the disease. At the time of the announcement, a total of two people were known to have contracted Ebola in the US, both of whom were healthcare workers in a Dallas hospital where a patient who'd contracted the disease in Africa was being treated using inadequate precautions.

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Klain does not have medical or public health experience. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the administration didn't see that as a problem because Ebola is "not solely about a medical response." It's also about crisis management.

Ebola doesn't threaten America — other tropical diseases do. Read more here.

"Mr. Klain… has strong management experience inside government but also in the private sector…. He's somebody that has strong relationships with members of Congress and those of us who worked with him here at the White House earlier in the administration. All of that means he is the right person for the job and he is the right person to make sure we are integrating the interagency response to this significant challenge."

Klain is currently the president of Case Holdings and general counsel of the investment group Revolution.

The move to appoint an Ebola czar comes as polls show public confidence in the administration's response efforts to Ebola has nosedived, and as fears about the spread of the virus has dramatically increased. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of an individual who has symptoms.

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that a majority of those surveyed support a flight ban from West Africa. Obama said Thursday he was opposed to such a proposal because travelers may then seek to evade the screening process currently in place at several major airports.

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Republican lawmakers have seized on public fears about the virus and turned it into a campaign issue, hammering the Obama administration over its preparedness actions and what they say is a poor federal response. Democrats have in turn accused their GOP colleagues of slashing the budgets of public health agencies, thereby hampering their ability to respond to outbreaks.

"The situation with Ebola and what's going on in Syria and Iraq — all of this is creating a high level of anxiety among voters and a sense of uncertainty about the future," Democratic strategist Doug Thornell told the Hill.

Appointing Klain as Ebola czar further enraged some Republicans.

"This appointment is both shocking and frankly tone deaf to what the American people are concerned about," Representative Tim Murphy said in a statement. On Thursday, Murphy, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, blasted officials from the Centers for Disease Control who testified about the agency's response.

Obama floated the idea of appointing an Ebola czar Thursday, following a meeting with representatives from the Centers for Disease Control along with cabinet officials, during with they discussed the two Ebola cases in Dallas.

"It may make sense for us to have one person so that after this initial surge of activity, we can have a more regular process just to make sure that we're crossing all the T's and dotting all the I's going forward," Obama said.

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The White House initially opposed the idea of an Ebola czar. But Earnest noted Friday that Klain's appointment coincides with a surge in media attention Ebola has received "in the past several weeks." He added that Klain's duties will include communicating with "state and local leaders including public health officials to protect the American public." He will report to Lisa Monaco, Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, and Susan Rice, the president's national security advisor.

"This administration has been focused on this Ebola outbreak since it was first reported back in March," Earnest said. "There's quite a bit more that can be done. That's why you've seen the president convene a number of telephone calls over the last 48 hours or so with leaders in Japan, across Europe. The president placed a number of additional calls yesterday to try to enlist greater international support for the very serious situation we see in West Africa."

On Thursday, Obama approved calling up reservists and national guardsmen to assist in the response to the crisis in West Africa, where conservative estimates say 9,000 people have contracted the disease, half of whom have died.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

Photo via Flickr