The Ebola crisis in the United States has become an anchor threatening to sink the Obama presidency.

Already under fire from critics who saw the federal response to the outbreak as disorganized and timid, things went from bad to worse on Wednesday, when it was revealed a second nurse had contracted the disease while treating a Liberian man at a Dallas-area hospital…

The precipice on which the president now rests is eerily similar to the one that confronted former President George W. Bush at the same point in his term…

Obama hasn’t had a major error like Katrina or the Iraq War. But the cumulative effect of careening through an unrelenting two years of crises, from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Secret Service, has had a similar effect on perceptions of the president.


The country’s response to Ebola wasn’t supposed to go this way. Yet the supposedly clear protocols to prevent an Ebola outbreak have been turned on their head thanks to the events transpiring in Dallas, where the symptoms of the first U.S. Ebola case were initially missed and the disease has now spread to two of the workers who cared for him at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital…

“We’re really learning on the fly,” said Jonathan Zenilman, chief of the infectious disease department at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. “There are a lot of people who want certainty. That doesn’t exist right now.”…

“This is going to be part of our environment for a while,” Zenilman said.


CDC director Thomas Frieden said that health-care workers were not under active Ebola observation like the Dallas civilians who may have been exposed, but were instead “self monitoring” for symptoms. They were not supposed to travel on public transportation or commercial flights. Nor could he explain the new cases of transmission except as an unspecified “breach of protocol,” perhaps when they removed hazmat suits.

The new victim was not vomiting or bleeding in the air (how reassuring) and thus was unlikely contagious. Yet the CDC claims the Dallas Ebola burst—while still minor—is under control except when it isn’t. It would be easier to trust the official appeals for calm if officials did not keep supplying reasons to believe otherwise, or behaving as if it is absurd to fear a pathogen that liquefies internal organs.

An Ebola outbreak on the Eastern seaboard or some other densely populated region could well cost billions of dollars to contain and perhaps throw the economy into recession, akin to the 2009 swine flu pandemic in Asia. The possibility is very remote, and Washington is marginally more accountable than China. Then again, the CDC said domestic cases were improbable too.


Experts who study public psychology say the next few weeks will be crucial to containing mounting anxiety. “Officials will have to be very, very careful,” said Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies public health and perceptions of threat. “Once trust starts to erode, the next time they tell you not to worry — you worry.”

At the moment, health authorities are struggling to retain the public’s trust, a crucial brake on runaway anxiety. The most important factors, Dr. Slovic said, will be competence and fairness: communicating the risks clearly, reporting all cases as quickly as possible, and treating each infection with the maximum level of care.

Officials will be walking a fine line, he said. “This could tip very quickly.”


But this Ebola situation? I’m not panicking, but from the start they’ve underestimated it, they’ve not been ahead of it, and they keep saying things that the next day turn out not to be true. First it was: “It’s not going to get here.” And then it got here. Then: “It’s not going to spread out from the one guy,” and then it spread out from that one guy.

Where’s the kick-ass-and-take-names mentality that we need with Ebola right now? I’ve really had it with all this “voluntary Ebola” response. Where’s the mandatory quarantine? Do we really need to have people flying in-and-out of Liberia to take care of the crisis, specifically? And let’s not even get into what a nightmare it was inside this Dallas hospital. Just two days ago my tweet was something like, “Nigeria has contained Ebola. All we have to do—no offense, Nigeria—is be better than you.” Well, I think my tweet today would be, “Sorry, Nigeria! I think I’ve overestimated America. We’d like to be just as good as you.” Have you heard what they’re doing in that hospital? They weren’t even wearing protective clothing that covered their whole bodies. And then this doctor said, “Put tape on your neck.” What the fuck?! It seems like a lot of people have been exposed, whereas when the one guy came back, we could have shut it down right then and there. And we didn’t.


Conservative activist and former pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson said Thursday that Americans were losing confidence in a government that continues to delay imposing a commercial travel ban on Ebola-ridden West African countries.

“You don’t want to let something that dangerous voluntarily come into your country,” Mr. Carson said in an interview with Fox News. “If other countries have seen the wisdom in doing this, why are we the last?”

Dr. Carson also warned that the American people would be in greater danger of contracting the deadly disease should it reach Central America.


Of all the reasons people have for coming here — welfare, drug-dealing, Medicare scams — “I have Ebola and I’m going to die, otherwise” is surely one of the strongest. The entire continent of Africa now knows that this is a country that will happily spend half a million dollars on treating someone who just arrived — and then berate itself for not doing enough.

Thomas Eric Duncan’s family may be upset with his treatment, but they have to admit, the price was right. Medical bill: $0.00. Your next statement will arrive in 30 days.

And now we’re going to have to let in entire families with Ebola, because the important thing is — actually, I don’t know why. It’s some technical, scientific point about fences not working.

Republicans — Americans — have got to demand Frieden’s resignation. If only we could demand Obama’s.


The communications operation of the federal government has been classically Obama-esque. At every turn they’ve over promised and under-delivered. It seems obvious to me that the two main drivers of this failure are an undue prioritization of politics and a typical overconfidence in the government bureaucracy. Whenever you listen to Friedan, Fauci or Obama talk about this, they do so in a way that leaves you wondering what the real facts are. What are they not telling us? At every turn they issue categorical statements about how things are under control and that X or Y won’t happen and when X or Y happen, they say it’s because of a breach in protocol they cannot identify. It’s as if the theory of government competence is more important than dealing with the reality of the situation at hand. That theory is only reassuring when it conforms to reality. When it doesn’t, it makes the next categorical statement not merely less reassuring but actually more worrisome…

My problem with the public arguments from the administration is that they are so underwhelming. We constantly hear that a travel ban would make it impossible to send volunteers to Africa to help contain the disease. Really? We can’t charter planes anymore? Is the military out of aircraft that could fly CDC crews and supplies to West Africa? It’s hinted that it would be somehow unfair or mean or unjust to bar travel to the US. But that’s nonsense. There is no civil right to fly to America. Frieden said today that if we imposed a travel ban we’d lose the ability to screen people coming to the US from West Africa. Uh, right. And if you lock the doors to your home, you lose the ability frisk intruders. It’s arguments like this lead people to think, “What aren’t they telling us?”


As I wrote last week, the Ebola crisis is a reminder of how much faith we’ve lost in our political and social institutions. The Ebola infections cause most Americans to wonder about the effectiveness of local, state, and federal agencies, as well as the private-sector health care systems. We must demand better.

If we don’t hold our leaders accountable, especially those who share our ideology, we get irresponsible and unresponsive leadership.

If the nation’s leadership class doesn’t own up to its mistakes and learn from them, they lose the faith of their flocks.

The compact between The Leaders and The Led is fundamental to the survival of any tribe, community, or country. You could argue that radical connectivity and the democratization of the media makes it harder than ever to lead, and to be led. But that just makes stories like this horrific Ebola situation all the more maddening—and all the more important.