President Barack Obama delayed acting on immigration and an attorney general nomination this fall to dodge the politics of the midterm campaign season. But there was one topic he could not push aside – Ebola.
The past week’s jarring Ebola developments have put a spotlight on the president’s management skills just as he was earning praise for acting militarily against Islamic militants.
In recent months, Obama caught criticism for going golfing immediately after speaking about the beheading of an American, and for attending a fundraiser after an airliner was shot down in Ukraine. This time, as the Ebola threat hit home in America, the president suddenly cleared his schedule, canceling travel and appearances to consult with Cabinet members and talk with world leaders about how to contain the epidemic.
By Friday, he had named a point man for the U.S. response just as the clamor for an Ebola “czar” was nearing fever pitch.
“They are resisting their usual impulse to hunker down and wait it out,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid who has in the past consulted with the White House. “This time they’ve decided to switch gears if only because it hasn’t worked in the past.”
The week began with the news that a nurse in Dallas had become the first known case of Ebola being transmitted within the United States. By week’s end, a second nurse had been diagnosed, and the hunt for possible exposures expanded from Texas to Ohio, from multiple domestic airline flights to a cruise ship denied a port-of-call in the Caribbean.
White House officials say the president’s approach this time reflected the unfolding, real-time developments that needed ongoing decisions to help reassure an increasingly alarmed public. Seeing the issue spiral, White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged “shortcomings” in the federal response and Obama himself had to call on his government to react in “a much more aggressive way.”
Still, that didn’t stop the second guessing, even within his party.
“I’m greatly concerned … that the administration did not act fast enough responding in Texas,” Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat in a tight Senate contest, said during a congressional hearing on Ebola.
At the same time, the crisis seemed to narrow to a single political point of debate: Should the U.S. impose a travel or visa ban on people from the three West African nations bearing the brunt of the epidemic.
Obama said he was not “philosophically opposed” to the idea, but that in practice it would be counterproductive, driving travelers underground and hindering screening of potential Ebola carriers. Still, polls showed the idea had popular appeal.
Republican Senate candidates began challenging their opponents to take a stand. And on Friday, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina issued her own call for a temporary travel ban.
Obama’s appointment of Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, as the administration’s Ebola point man drew its own round of partisan criticism. Several Republicans complained that the lawyer and Democratic insider had no public health experience.
“Three weeks before an Election Day, and Republicans are seeking to score political points? Stop the presses!” Earnest said dismissively of the critics.
Still, the week’s developments had been disturbing.
The Liberian man who died in Dallas from Ebola after traveling to the U.S. had infected two nurses, one of whom flew to Ohio and back before being diagnosed with the disease. Officials could not explain how the nurses became exposed, and the list of potential contacts with the second nurse grew after officials discovered she may have had symptoms before traveling.
“The trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning as the American public loses confidence each day with demonstrated failures of the current strategy,” said GOP Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, chairman of a House subcommittee that held a hearing on the government’s response.
Manley and other Democrats say a weak response would feed into a Republican view that government is unmanageable and that scandals such as those at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service, and the botched launch of healthcare.gov last year prove Democrats are not fit to be in charge.
When Obama postponed a campaign trip to Connecticut for Wednesday for vulnerable Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy and canceled a speech on women and the economy in Rhode Island for the next day, he may have given up opportunities to project a strong party message.
But he also couldn’t be accused of abdicating responsibility for the Ebola response.
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