As the White House grappled with the unpredictable nature of Ebola on U.S. soil, one aspect of the government’s response was relatively easy to forecast: Sooner or later, President Obama would turn to a fixer to help solve the problem.
During a second term in which the administration has moved from one crisis to the next, Obama has repeatedly resorted to using outside operators to right the government’s course, rather than simply deploying his Cabinet members.
On Wednesday, former White House staff member and Democratic strategist Ron Klain will formally join Obama’s staff to oversee the government’s Ebola response.
This time last year, the president recruited Jeffrey D. Zients to fix HealthCare.gov, the Web site Americans use to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Five months ago, Obama dispatched Rob Nabors, his deputy chief of staff, to review the Department of Veterans Affairs’ troubled health-care system, before installing former Procter & Gamble chief executive Robert McDonald as the department’s head.
Few questioned the need for an “Ebola czar,” which Klain’s position has been dubbed, as the administration seeks to boost public confidence and gain control of a crisis that has knocked the White House off-message just weeks before the midterm elections. More broadly, however, the move has underscored how nearly six years into his presidency, Obama has struggled to manage the sprawling federal bureaucracy that he has said is critical to improving the lives of ordinary Americans.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an interview Tuesday that Obama has not followed the lesson Alexander learned as an aide to President Richard M. Nixon in 1969: Presidents do best when they delegate most issues to their Cabinet members and empower their subordinates. By taking on so much itself, Alexander said, the White House has not invested enough in making sure agencies run smoothly and provide critical input for policy decisions.
“You get the impression that everything is run out of the White House, and that’s an understandable urge, to trust only the people 10 to 15 feet away from you. But if you want to be successful, you have to delegate,” Alexander said. “He’s often the smartest guy in the room,” he added, referring to Obama, “but the wisest guy in the room will only reserve the biggest problems for himself, and push out the other problems to members of the Cabinet.”
Presidential aides say the White House is continuously engaged with the Cabinet and agency staff regarding the development and implementation of policy, and to exchange information about ongoing events. While Broderick Johnson, director of the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs, informed agency chiefs of staffs last month that he was eliminating the calls they held with the White House twice a week and switching their bi-weekly lunches to smaller, occasional group breakfasts, White House officials say outreach through the office is just one of many ways it connects with agency leaders.
White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said the decision to bring in Klain was not a reflection on the capacity of Obama’s Cabinet to run the government.
“It’s the most powerful force on the planet. The U.S. government is vast, and sometimes problems rise to the level that they need special attention,” she said. “That model has been shown to work. It would be great to not have problems on the front end, but even when you have very capable leadership, there can be an unprecedented outbreak, that we’ve seen with Ebola, that requires special attention.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Klain is needed now because he “continues to be the person that the president believes is the expert implementer that’s needed to ensure that our whole-of-government approach to fighting Ebola is effectively applied in this situation to protect the American public.”
On several occasions over the past year, the White House has gone on the defensive on issues that it had long identified as key priorities — including providing health-care benefits for veterans, dealing with migrants at the Southern border and launching HealthCare.gov.
In each case, simmering bureaucratic problems erupted into full-fledged management crises — often after repeated assurances from the administration that it was on top of the issue — in a way that has made the West Wing look merely reactive. And in multiple instances — from the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups to the fact that Secret Service agents let an armed federal contractor on an elevator with Obama last month — the president’s aides said he learned about these issues from media reports or shortly before the story broke in the press.
“Instead of launching policies, they’re launching search-and-destroy missions against bad press releases,” said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Last year, as Obama began his second term, Rothkopf published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Managing the Oval Office,” which noted the president’s lack of executive experience before winning office in 2008 and argued that Obama had difficulty delegating responsibility.
Rothkopf acknowledged that the administration’s troubles have been compounded by Washington gridlock that has made it difficult for the White House to win spending and support from Congress to strengthen critical programs.
But he added that “what really ought to be happening is that they’re not just managing this [Ebola crisis] but determining where they went wrong and need to be stronger. There should be a post-event debrief about how to strengthen the system for next time. But there’s no follow-up. They’re very tactical, very reactive.”
Several current and former administration officials say that although Cabinet officials are now empowered to pursue specific projects, they are still sometimes excluded from key decision-making sessions.
When Obama convened his Cabinet meeting on Ebola on Wednesday, the original invitation included neither McDonald nor Labor Secretary Thomas Perez — even though VA has an extensive medical system and the Labor Department oversees worker safety.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to be more candid, said the two secretaries were later included because White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s “thinking is we have tremendous resources and you have to think outside the box on how you would use government resources to tackle this problem.”
Some of the harshest criticism of the president has come from some of the Cabinet’s biggest stars, including former defense secretaries Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. Each faulted Obama’s foreign policy — particularly on his approach to the civil war in Syria — in new books and promotional tours this year.
Vali Nasr, who served as a top aide to former State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, wrote a searing critique of the White House in a memoir published last year. Nasr charged that Obama advisers actively undermined Holbrooke, who died in 2010, by leaving him out of key meetings and ignoring his advice — in part because they feared Holbrooke was too eager for media attention.
“Across the board, the administration views all these people as there to implement decisions made by a much smaller cabal,” said Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Policy was made above the rank of all these people. When it comes to critical decisions, it was always made by people inexperienced in foreign policy.”
White House allies reject the notion that the addition of Klain and other outside experts is an admission that the president has not adequately managed the agencies. Regarding Ebola, the government’s response spans numerous agencies, so it is “important to make clear the lines of authority and decision-making,” said Bruce Reed, who replaced Klain as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff in 2011 and left the administration last year.
“Situations that are out of the ordinary often call for extraordinary actions like this,” Reed said. He added that criticism of Obama’s management “is not fair in this case. It’s important for the administration to adapt as circumstances change. That’s a much better response than refusing to adapt.”
Neera Tanden, president of the Center of American Progress, said the White House has faced unfair and conflicting criticism for, on one hand, allegedly micromanaging the agencies to the point that the policy experts are frustrated, while on the other hand purportedly not paying attention to mounting management problems until they reach a crisis.
“It struck me that maybe one decision the CDC could have made was to send a team of experts” right away to oversee infection control protocols at Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital, Tanden said, “but it doesn’t make sense that the White House would be managing all those decisions. The problem we have here is the CDC is making judgment calls and some decisions maybe they should have made differently.”
Former Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen, who served as the national incident commander in response to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and also oversaw the federal recovery effort in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, said policymakers need to determine quickly when a problem is too big to be addressed by standard government operating procedures.
“You really need to step back and question assumptions and ask, ‘Do we really have our arms around this problem?’ ” said Allen, who now serves as an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “It’s almost a recognition threshold. With a greater risk of things having large consequences, we have to be more sensitive to the trip wires that are there.”
Several of the president’s supporters said he has been swift to assess whether the current government structure is working since the botched launch of the online federal health-care marketplace a year ago. In May, Obama promoted White House staff member Kristie Canegallo to the post of deputy chief of staff for policy implementation, to help ensure the administration carried out its top priorities.
At this point, the White House has taken charge of the Ebola response. Last Wednesday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had planned to hold a live 1 p.m. news briefing with CDC Director Tom Frieden to disclose the news that a second nurse was infected with the virus and traveled on a flight from Cleveland to Dallas. But by late morning, they had switched to a 12:45 p.m. teleconference in which Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary for health and humans services, briefed reporters first, after which Frieden spoke.
And once the president appoints a person to be in charge of managing a crisis, he makes clear that there is no room for error. Allen recalled that when he rode on Air Force One in early June 2010, as oil continued to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, the president gave him very clear instructions.
“Thad, you know there are no do-overs here,” Allen remembered, at which point he replied, “Yes, sir, I understand that.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that, according to White House aides, the president learned about an incident involving the Secret Service shortly before it broke in the press, not after.
Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.