The height of the Ebola outbreak in Africa, Europe, and the United States also coincided with a period in which the Obama administration came under the heaviest scrutiny over its response to that health crisis. Amid criticism, President Barack Obama rejected calls from lawmakers to impose some travel restrictions on the areas affected by Ebola, but he did say his administration was open to appointing one figure to oversee his government’s response to the crisis.
Days later, Obama appointed Ron Klain, a long-time Democratic political operative and veteran of both Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s presidential campaigns, to serve as the principal figure ensuring that Ebola did not spread any further into the United States.
But Klain’s experience as a partisan political operator with experience handling crisis communications for national campaigns led some critics to believe the Obama administration’s priority for their new Ebola Czar was to manage the bad press they were receiving.
“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,” White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest told CNN’s Jim Acosta in October when asked what Klain’s qualifications for his new position were. “I guess, to more directly address your question, what we were looking for was not an Ebola expert, but rather an implementation expert.”
While the spread of Ebola into the United States has largely been checked in recent weeks, the disease continues to ravage West Africa. In Liberia, where 2,400 American troops are stationed with the task of preventing the outbreak’s further spread, the number of new reported Ebola cases has steadied. That is not the case in places like Sierra Leone, where the number of new cases being reported is accelerating, and medical professionals continue to succumb to the infection.
“The number of people infected with Ebola has passed, 17,000, according to data published Tuesday by the World Health Organization,” ABC News recently reported. “Of those, more than 6,000 have died.”
With this news in mind, the announcement that Ron Klain will soon give up his position as “Ebola Response Coordinator” in order to return to the private sector early next year becomes far less explicable.
Klain has committed to former AOL chief Steve Case that by March 1, he’ll be back on the job as president of Case Holdings and general counsel for Case’s venture firm Revolution LLC, Case tells Fortune. An administration official confirmed the plan.
“He has no intention of staying on in any other capacity here at the White House,” the administration official said. “Ron will do the job for which he was appointed and return to Revolution.”
Case told Fortune reporters that Klain “was not eager to take on this assignment but felt it was an important thing to do.”
“He agreed to do it with the understanding that it would be for a limited period of time,” Case added.
A fair assessment of the work Klain and the emergency personnel and federal planners he managed must concede that they did not fail in preventing Ebola’s further spread inside the United States. To the extent that their work was responsible for isolating the deadly hemorrhagic fever in Africa, they are to be commended.
Is it wise, however, to assume that Klain’s services will no longer be needed by March and that, presumably, the threat of this outbreak will have been neutralized? There are only a few indications that the infection’s spread is decelerating overseas? If Klain’s position already has an expiration date, but the plague’s spread has not been arrested at its source, it would seem to confirm that his appointment was primarily a political maneuver.