President Obama has asked Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to both Vice President Biden and former vice president Al Gore, as his Ebola response coordinator, according to a White House official.
"He will report directly to the president’s homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, and the president's national security adviser, Susan Rice, as he ensures that efforts to protect the American people by detecting, isolating and treating Ebola patients in this country are properly integrated but don’t distract from the aggressive commitment to stopping Ebola at the source in West Africa," a White House official wrote in an e-mail.
Klain, 53, is a longtime Democratic operative who served as Biden's chief of staff from 2009 to 2011 and as Gore's from 1995 to 1999. He helped oversee the Democratic side in the 2000 presidential election recount as its lead lawyer, a role that Kevin Spacey portrayed in the HBO film "Recount."
CNN first reported the news Friday morning.
Obama has been under pressure from Republicans for weeks to appoint an "Ebola czar" to oversee the federal government's overall effort to contain the disease. Thursday night, the president told reporters: "It may make sense for us to have one person, in part just 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. "
"Klain’s role is consistent with the view the president articulated in the Oval Office last night that Monaco, Rice and others have done outstanding work in confronting this challenge so far — but given their management of other national and homeland security priorities, additional bandwidth will further enhance the government’s Ebola response," the White House official added in the e-mailed statement.
The move did not satisfy conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who said the staff change fell short of what is needed to contain the spread of the lethal virus on U.S. soil.
“We don't need another so-called 'czar'; we need presidential leadership. This is a public health crisis, and the answer isn't another White House political operative," Cruz said in a statement. "The answer is a commander in chief who stands up and leads, banning flights from Ebola-afflicted nations and acting decisively to secure our southern border."
But Klain's Democratic colleagues said he was well-suited for the assignment. Robert Bauer, who served as White House counsel under Obama and worked on the 2000 recount, said Klain has developed a reputation of having "taken on highly charged assignments where there were significant complexities, and managed them very well."
Klain is not known for his health-care expertise, though he would get briefings on those policies in his capacity as a campaign strategist for Gore and the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate, John F. Kerry.
"I wouldn't call him a policy wonk by any means, but he was someone who got [that] you couldn’t formulate good strategy without understanding the policy," said Chris Jennings, who served as a top White House health policy adviser under President Bill Clinton and Obama.
Klain navigated the legal and political worlds with ease, Jennings added. "He wasn’t just an analyst. He was a strategist."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) questioned Klain's lack of medical credentials, saying in a statement: “Given the mounting failings in the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak, it is right that the President has sought to task a single individual to coordinate its response. But I have to ask why the President didn’t pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background?"
Known for a mordant sense of humor, Klain is also an enthusiastic Facebook user who frequently posts about his family. He is married to Monica Medina, who served as a top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official during Obama's first term and is now the National Geographic Society's senior director for international ocean policy.
Klain became close with Biden while serving as a staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden served as chairman. He helped advise Biden during the 2008 campaign, and his bona fides inside the West Wing date back to shortly after Obama won that historic election.
During the transition, the newly elected president wanted to find a role for Klain in the West Wing, and his name was mentioned as a potential White House communications director, according to a person familiar with the internal deliberations. But Biden also wanted him and convinced Klain to join the vice president’s office as chief of staff, a role he had also served for Vice President Gore in the late 1990s.
Mark Gitenstein, a former Obama administration ambassador to Romania, said Klain developed a strong relationship with Obama while helping prepare the then-senator from Illinois for the presidential debates against Republican nominee John McCain in 2008. Klain had served in a similar role for Kerry’s 2004 campaign.
“Debate prep requires getting in someone’s face and saying, ‘No, you're not doing this right,’ ” said Gitenstein, who had personally recommended that Klain replace him as general counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1989, when Klain was 28 and then serving as a clerk on the Supreme Court.
Gitenstein said Klain’s management of the economic stimulus push in the first year of the Obama administration helped him prepare for the challenges that he'll face managing the Ebola response. “It was a very difficult job -- a management problem and a problem of getting the money to the right places, which required coordination with other Cabinet secretaries.... Ron really got his arms around the problem as fast as anyone I’ve seen.”
Former senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), who was a longtime political adviser to Biden, called Klain well-suited for the role based on his varied experience dealing with Congress, the White House and the media.
“He’s like your Renaissance man; the more difficult the problem, the better he is,” Kaufman said.
Jon Wolfsthal, who served on Biden’s national security staff, said Klain managed both Biden’s domestic operations and the national security division.
“I would not say he’s a light touch. You know he’s in the room,” Wolfsthal said. “But he’s not trying to push anybody around or boss them around. He’s very serious, and he makes sure the work gets done.... Even though he doesn’t have a background in disease, it doesn’t matter -- he will master anything.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) immediately praised the news.
"I've known Ron Klain for over twenty years," Schumer said in a statement. "He is smart, aggressive, and levelheaded; exactly the qualities we need in a czar to steer our response to Ebola. He is an excellent choice."
Klain left the White House in 2011 to become president of Case Holdings, the holding company for the business and philanthropic interests of former AOL chairman Steve Case, and general counsel of Revolution LLC, a Washington-based venture capital firm founded by Case.
Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.
This post has been updated.