President Obama on Friday tapped longtime Democratic operative Ron Klain to coordinate the federal government’s response to the threat of widespread infection from the Ebola virus. The move came as the president and his administration faced mounting criticism about its handling of the disease.
The appointment of Klain, an experienced Washington lawyer who served as chief of staff to both Vice President Biden and former vice president Al Gore, signaled the administration’s recognition that an Ebola outbreak in the United States could overwhelm its management capacity.
In Klain, 53, Obama has enlisted a legal expert and Democratic strategist with a reputation for handling complex projects such as the administration’s economic stimulus package during Obama’s first term and the Democratic effort to challenge the 2000 presidential election results.
Despite repeated reassurances from the White House and federal public health officials that the chances of widespread infection remain small, the public anxiety about the disease continued to build, and it is increasingly becoming a political issue as Election Day draws near.
A growing chorus of Democrats — several of whom are embroiled in tight reelection contests — are calling for increased travel restrictions on passengers from West Africa, even though the administration and public health experts warn such a move would be counterproductive.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama, who spoke to Klain by phone Friday morning, had chosen him because he “recognized that the response would benefit from having someone who could devote a hundred percent of their time to this specific task — that is, coordinating the response — and somebody like Mr. Klain, who has a strong management track record both inside government and in the private sector, is the right person for the job.”
While the president’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, has been coordinating the domestic side of the inter-agency response to the outbreak since March, a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the administration began reassessing that approach after the issue “exploded on her agenda.” This week, the official added, the White House started seriously contemplating the idea of bringing in outside help.
Earnest noted that Monaco, who also helps direct the administration’s strategy to confront the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, “has significant responsibilities when it comes to other national security priorities as well.”
Klain will report to Monaco and Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser. In another move to ramp up the White House response Friday, Obama decided to designate senior personnel on the ground in Dallas, including an experienced Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinator and a White House liaison.
Klain is tasked with coordinating domestic preparedness efforts and the U.S. military operation to help control the virus’s spread in West Africa. His appointment drew plaudits from Democrats but little praise from Republicans. Most GOP lawmakers questioned why the president chose someone with a political and management pedigree rather than someone with public health or infectious disease credentials. And some faulted Obama for not taking more aggressive action to halt the flow of people from Ebola-affected countries into the United States.
“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,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) 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.”
Even Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who had endorsed the idea of empowering a single person to oversee the federal response, tweeted that Klain was “not what I had in mind” and he preferred a Cabinet member “accountable to Congress.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) questioned Klain’s lack of medical credentials, saying in a statement it was “right” to install someone in the post, “But I have to ask, why the president didn’t pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background?”
“The fact of the matter is this is much broader than just a medical response,” Earnest said Friday. “What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert but rather an implementation expert, and that’s exactly what Ron Klain is.”
Klain emerged from the Al Gore 2000 and John F. Kerry 2004 presidential campaigns with a reputation as one of the Democrats’ most able strategists.
“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 former president Bill Clinton and Obama.
A Harvard Law School graduate, Klain clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White before rising through the staff ranks in the Senate to secure the job of Gore’s chief of staff in his early 30s. Klain became close with Biden while serving as a staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden served as chairman and helped advise Biden during the 2008 campaign.
During Obama’s pre-inaugural 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. More recently, Klain was a serious contender for the post of White House counsel — though W. Neil Eggleston ultimately took the job.
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 (R-Ariz.) in 2008. Klain had served in a similar role for Kerry’s 2004 campaign.
Known for firing off e-mails at odd hours because he runs on little sleep, Klain is 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 the National Geographic Society’s senior director for international ocean policy.
Gitenstein said he believed that 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.
Klain is taking a leave of absence as president of Case Holdings, the holding company for the business and philanthropic interests of former AOL chairman Steve Case, and general counsel of Case’s venture capital firm Revolution LLC. No start date has been set for his new White House job, but Earnest said Klain would start “soon” and is expected to work for roughly five to six months on the Ebola initiative.
The Klain announcement came as Ebola fears continued to reverberate across the country. Friday brought news that a health-care worker from the Dallas hospital that has been the epicenter of Ebola in the United States had been isolated on a cruise ship that left Texas on Sunday.
This health-care worker had no direct contact with Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man who was diagnosed with Ebola and later died after flying to Texas last month. But, according to Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department, the person “may have had contact with” fluid samples from Duncan during his treatment. Mexican authorities did not allow the cruise ship to make a scheduled visit to Cozumel on Friday, according to Carnival Cruise Lines. It is scheduled to return to Galveston, Tex., Sunday morning.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced late Thursday that another large group of people had to be contacted and screened. The CDC had said it was reaching out to anyone who was on the Frontier Airlines flight taken by Amber Vinson, the second Dallas nurse to contract Ebola, when she traveled from Cleveland to Texas on Monday. However, the CDC says it is reaching out to passengers on the Frontier flight she had taken to Ohio on Oct. 10 to see whether they are deemed to be at potential risk.
David Nakamura, Mark Berman and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.