Ebola ‘czar’ knows Washington, but not medicine

This undated handout photo provided by Revolution shows Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. A longtime Democratic operative, Klain was tasked Friday by President Barack Obama with running the government's response to the Ebola crisis. (AP Photo/Revolution)

WASHINGTON (AP) — If there’s one thing the “Ebola czar” knows, it’s government.

Ron Klain, President Barack Obama’s new point man on Ebola, has no medical or public health background. But he does have a wealth of experience managing unruly federal bureaucracies in times of crisis. The White House says that makes him the prefect candidate to shepherd the government’s response to a deadly, growing outbreak.

Yet after demanding that Obama appoint a “czar,” some Republicans are balking at the president’s choice of a Washington insider and political operative to handle a public health emergency that has many Americans in fear.

And though Klain has tackled the national financial crisis and served as chief of staff to two vice presidents — he’s even been portrayed by Kevin Spacey in an HBO film — his latest gig may prove his toughest challenge.

“He’s there to get the job done, not win the Nobel Prize in medicine,” said Bruce Reed, another former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. Reed worked with Klain in both the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Under immense pressure to step up his response, Obama turned to Klain on Friday. He’s being asked to synchronize an alphabet blizzard of federal agencies: the CDC, NIH, HHS, DHS, FDA and DOD, to name a few. All are working in one fashion or another to stem Ebola in the U.S. and in West Africa, but breakdowns in the system that led to two health workers contracting Ebola in Dallas have raised concerns that the government isn’t doing enough.

No, his title isn’t “czar.” He’s the government’s Ebola response coordinator.

Klain was Obama’s first choice for the job, said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He’s expected to stay on the job just five or six months and will report to Obama’s homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, and his national security adviser, Susan Rice. Those two advisers have been at the forefront of the Ebola operation at the White House, but with other threats competing for their attention, Earnest said Obama saw a need to bring on outside help to focus exclusively on Ebola.

An attorney and longtime Democratic operative, Klain served as Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff and was a key figure during the 2000 Florida presidential election recount, leading to his portrayal by Spacey in the HBO film “Recount.” He previously served under Attorney General Janet Reno in the Clinton administration and later as Biden’s chief of staff.

During Obama’s first term, Klain helped spearhead implementation of the roughly $800 billion stimulus package in 2009 in response to the financial crisis — a massive, cross-government project that Klain’s supporters say offers parallels to the challenge he is now undertaking with Ebola. Out of government since 2011, Klain is currently president of the holding company of former AOL chairman Steve Case and general counsel for a Washington-based technology venture capital firm.

Yet Republicans criticized Obama’s selection, calling Klain’s experience insufficient and wondering why the president didn’t choose someone with a background in, say, infectious disease control. With the midterm elections closing in, GOP lawmakers argued that picking a Democratic operative was tone-deaf to the public’s growing concerns about Ebola and declining confidence in the government’s competence.

“Leave it to President Obama to put a liberal political activist in charge of the administration’s Ebola response,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., himself a physician.

Former colleagues describe Klain as a born problem-solver with little patience for disorganization, waste or tardiness. When he oversaw the stimulus, his associates say, he was known for forcing agencies that didn’t get along to cooperate.

“These situations can be pretty dark and seem extremely hopeless,” said Jared Berstein, Biden’s former chief economist. “Ron’s ability to see the best path to success keeps him and those around him focused in a pretty positive way.”

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