White House

In Ebola czar, Obama again looks outside his government for help

Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain looks on in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting with President Barack Obama on Oct. 22, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain looks on in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting with President Barack Obama on Oct. 22, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT) MCT

President Barack Obama welcomed his new Ebola czar to the job Wednesday, the latest example of looking outside his own government for someone to help run a major government initiative.

Obama met Wednesday in the Oval Office with Ron Klain, the former aide he turned to last week to oversee the administration’s response to the disease. Klain, called the Ebola response coordinator, is the newest of the so-called “czars” that presidents – particularly Obama – have turned to as troubles in their administrations arise.

In picking Klain, Obama bypassed his vice president, Cabinet secretaries and staffers, including longtime White House aide Kristie Canegallo, who in May was named deputy chief of staff for policy implementation for a variety of issues, including the Affordable Care Act.

Some analysts questioned whether a president really needs to go outside his administration.

“We’ve evolved to this atmosphere where presidents feel a need to communicate for reasons of optics that they are making big, bold moves about problems, and a favorite way has been to pick someone from the outside to be the big fixer,” said Mark J. Rozell, acting dean and public policy professor at George Mason University’s school of policy, government and international affairs.

The use of czars by presidents has been rising, and Obama is “clearly the champion of appointing czars,” said Rozell, who has studied the phenomenon and wrote a 2012 book, “ The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution.”

In Klain’s case, Obama initially had resisted appointing a single point person to oversee the Ebola response, then gave in to public pressure amid growing criticism of the government’s response. Klain is not his first czar. He looked to outside advisers earlier in his tenure, including during the financial crisis and following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“It’s no secret that presidents are overwhelmed by demands on their time,” Rozell said. “And in the modern era they’re increasingly pressured to showcase that they’re doing something about all these problems.”

Yet Rozell says the history of czars shows that they’ve “rarely made the federal government more effective or more efficient.” They also are not subject to Senate confirmation, and how much authority they can wield is a subject of debate.

Klain will report not to Obama but to Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who both sat in on the Obama-Klain meeting Wednesday, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

White House aides insisted that Obama wanted someone who could devote 100 percent to the Ebola effort.

“If we were taking somebody else off of another priority to focus on this, then we just have to find somebody to replace them in doing the task they were previously focused on,” said Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

“There is a certain logic of having someone from a perch in the White House, rather than an agency,” said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center. “You are sending a clear signal that this is something the president wants done and wants done right.”

And Klain’s appointment reflects an administration that keeps control centralized and values trust, said Justin Vaughn, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University and a co-author of an upcoming book on presidential policy czars.

“Klain doesn’t fit a lot of boxes, but he does fit as someone Obama trusts,” Vaughn said.

Ultimately, he said, a point person is a way for a president to appear in charge – a key consideration for a White House that recently has been accused of being slow to react to the rising threat posed by Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria.

“In a lot of cases of czars, this is the president saying ‘Hey, I am paying attention, we take this seriously,’” Vaughn said. “While there are plenty of resources in the White House, sometimes you just need a point person to call the meetings, to be the president’s liaison.”

The appointments are generally “50 percent symbol and 50 percent substance,” aimed at showing the administration is paying attention, as well as seeing that the “enormous duplication and overlap that exits in federal bureaucracy” doesn’t create additional problems, said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

But, he noted, most presidential czars have expertise in the subject that they will be dealing with. Klain’s experience is largely as a political operative, serving as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore.

“There have been people with political skills before, but generally speaking the title is reserved for someone with special subject matter expertise who can pull all the agencies together,” Light said. “This is a very unusual turn in the road for czardom.”

But in this case, Obama was unlikely to select anyone from the Cabinet agency most closely associated with health care: the Health and Human Services Department, which oversaw the roundly maligned rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

“He’d get carved up,” Light said. “I can hear it, the same agency responsible for Obamacare, they’re now going to bring you Ebola care.”