Ron Klain formally stepped into his new job as Ebola “czar” today as media reports provided a few more details regarding the extent of his authority. Predictably, conservatives, who had been pushing Obama to appoint someone to take the lead in coordinating the government response to the Ebola outbreak, criticized Klain’s appointment, with some calling him a “political hack” who lacks any medical background. Just as predictably, Obama’s supporters like Ezra Klein gushed that “Ron Klain is a great choice” because he has the bureaucratic experience necessary to make the governmental trains run on time. Both perspectives miss the point. As I noted in my earlier post on this topic, the success of previous czars had very little to do with their professional backgrounds, and everything to do with how their “czarships” operated. In this regard history suggests there are two keys to Klain’s being an effective czar. The first is not to duplicate the jobs of those already charged with dealing with the Ebola outbreak. That means not taking on operational duties and resisting the urge to create a “czar bureaucracy” layered on top of the existing governmental agencies. The second key is that it must be clear that Klain speaks for the President and, preferably, directly to the President, without any middleman.
So far, if media reports are to be believed, Obama and Klain seem to understand the first key. Evidently Klain will not become the public face of the Obama administration’s Ebola response – that function will reside with the CDC director. Instead, Klain will work behind the scenes as a hands-on coordinator. As one report puts it, “He’s said to be the behind-the-scenes director making sure decisions are tracked and carried out quickly, pulling all the various points of view together without distraction or indecisiveness.” At the same time, however, it appears that he will be reporting to the President through two of Obama’s White House aides, which is not ideal.
Of course, it is far too early to come to any firm conclusion regarding his effectiveness. Keep in mind that Obama has two objectives in appointing Klain. The first, obviously, is to insure that the Ebola outbreak is contained and there are no further cases here. But there is an important political component to Klain’s appointment as well. Republicans have been using the Ebola crisis as part of their midterm “crisis” narrative that tries to paint Democrats in general and the Obama administration in particular as lacking the administrative competence to deal with a number of interlocking issues, ranging from rise of the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist threat associated with a porous border and now the Ebola outbreak. In this vein, Scott Brown, who is locked in a close race with incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen for a New Hampshire Senate position, has explicitly linked the Ebola outbreak with the lack of border security, and tied both to the threat of a domestic attack by the Islamic State. In an interview with a New Hampshire radio station (see below), Brown said: “We need a comprehensive approach and I think that should be part of it. I think it’s all connected. For example, we have people coming into our country by legal means bringing in diseases and other potential challenges. Yet we have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it. I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist. And yet we do nothing to secure our border. It’s dangerous. And that’s the difference. I voted to secure it. Senator Shaheen has not.”
Brown reiterated that point, albeit without directly mentioning Ebola, in his recent debate with Shaheen.
Will this strategy work? Brown is willing to try; one of my Middlebury students from New Hampshire reported receiving a phone call from the Brown campaign asking whether she was concerned about getting Ebola. I expect more Republicans to inject the Ebola issue into their campaign narrative in the remaining two weeks. So far, however, while public concern about Ebola is on the rise, most people surveyed in this Pew poll express confidence in the government’s ability to deal with this issue and most do not express much worry that they will catch the disease.
Not surprisingly, however, given the campaign dynamics, concern about Ebola has risen faster among Republican voters than it has among Democrats or even independents.
From a political perspective, then, Obama is hoping that Klain’s appointment will help quell some of the Republican-stoked concerns regarding the Obama administration’s managerial competence – at least for the next two weeks! But it’s not clear how much of an impact Klain’s appointment will have in this regard, since so many Democrat incumbents have decided they want no part of the President in the closing days of the campaign. Instead, they are running on a record of local constituency service and personal biography. This has clearly been Shaheen’s strategy so far. So, while it appears at this early date that Klain is properly decked out to fulfill his coordinating role, when it comes to influencing the midterms the Czar’s garments may still be a bit threadbare.