White House on Ebola Czar: We didn’t want an Ebola expert

You could be forgiven for thinking that the White House would want to appoint someone to the newly created post of Ebola Czar (or “Ebola Response Coordinator,” as the White House prefers) who knows even a little bit about the deadly hemorrhagic fever which is spreading across the globe. You would be wrong.

Since the White House announced on Friday that it was appointing Ron Klain, a Democratic operative with experience on both the Bill Clinton and Al Gore presidential campaigns, to manage the administration’s response to the Ebola crisis, some in the media have been scratching their heads and wondering just what skills beyond administrative experience he brings to the table.

Let’s ask the White House.

“What does the new czar know about Ebola?” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest.

“The president again, wanted somebody who could serve in a coordinating function to manage the implementation of our whole government approach to our Ebola situation,” Earnest replied, answering Acosta’s question indirectly.

“I guess, to more directly address your question, what we were looking for was not an Ebola expert, but rather an implementation expert,” Earnest replied. “And that’s exactly what Ron Klain is.”

While this response provides a cornucopia of opportunities to snark at the White House and accuse them of approaching the Ebola crisis with a political goal in mind, let’s play devil’s advocate.

Klain has served as chief of staff for both Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. While this is a political position, to be sure, the chief of staff must also serve as an administrator. Although this is truer for a president’s chief of staff, the individual occupying this role has to be a competent manager and someone who is able to sort out the competing claims of various federal agencies. It is not impossible that the White House believed Klain would serve in that function well.

That could be true of just about any chief of staff, but it is a dubious claim to make about an individual who has repeatedly demonstrated that he values his role as a political operative over his position as a competent manager of government.

To wit, Klain’s defense of the infamous solar firm Solyndra:

Klain then contacted officials at the Department of Energy to inquire about the stability of Solyndra. Another Department of Energy official wrote: “Bottom line is that we believe the company is okay in the medium term, but will need some help of one kind or another down the road.”

Klain, in turn pushed forward the response, from DOE to Jarrett and added his own his own assessment.

“Sounds like there are some risk factors here — but that’s true of any innovative company that POTUS would visit,” Klain wrote on May 24, 2010, a day before Obama visited a company factory. “It looks like it is OK to me, but if you feel otherwise, let me know.”

Klain wrote in another e-mail to Jarrett on May 24, “The reality is that if POTUS visited 10 such places over the next 10 months, probably a few will be belly-up by election day 2012.”

The firm went bankrupt in September, 2011, and Obama’s visit to the factory and his praise of the firm became an issue he and his allies were forced to defend over the course of the 2012 campaign.

While Klain does not need to be an Ebola “expert” to manage the federal response competently, he does need to approach it like a health emergency rather than a political crisis.

A report in The Atlantic via Olga Khazan indicates that health care workers around the country are now in full revolt as it has become inescapably clear that only a handful of medical centers across the country are even remotely prepared to handle an Ebola patient for one hour much less the 24 the CDC says it will take to deploy a rapid response team.

In a recent survey of 2,000 nurses at more 750 facilities in 46 states, the Nurses United union found:

• 76 percent still say their hospital has not communicated to them any policy regarding potential admission of patients infected by Ebola
• 85 percent say their hospital has not provided education on Ebola with the ability for the nurses to interact and ask questions
• 37 percent say their hospital has insufficient current supplies of eye protection (face shields or side shields with goggles) for daily use on their unit; 36 percent say there are insufficient supplies of fluid resistant/impermeable gowns in their hospital
• 39 percent say their hospital does not have plans to equip isolation rooms with plastic covered mattresses and pillows and discard all linens after use; only 8 percent said they were aware their hospital does have such a plan in place

Klain has his work cut out for him, and those on the right who are voicing skepticism in his selection are doing so for good reason. The Ebola crisis is a real cause for concern for a significant number of Americans, and the White House has not demonstrated that they are treating it as one with this pick.

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022
David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022