By the time President Obama gave in and appointed an Ebola czar on Oct. 17, the White House response to this latest national crisis had already run a familiar course: the initial assurance that everything was under control; the subsequent realization that it wasn’t; the delay as administration officials appeared conflicted about what to do; and the growing frustration with a president who seemed a step or two behind each new development. Meanwhile, public anxiety mounted as cable news hysteria filled the vacuum and shaped the perception of the unfolding crisis.
Obama calmly insisted there was nothing to worry about when the news first broke of Thomas Eric Duncan’s infection. “It’s important for Americans to know the facts,” he said on Oct. 6. “Because of the measures we’ve put in place, as well as our world-class health system and the nature of the Ebola virus itself, which is difficult to transmit, the chance of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is extremely low.” It soon became clear the health system wasn’t prepared; the virus spread, infecting two nurses who had treated Duncan. One of them had called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to report having a fever, yet was still allowed to board a commercial airliner on Oct. 13. The CDC’s guidelines were declared “absolutely irresponsible and dead wrong” by Sean Kaufman, director for safety training at Emory University Hospital, where two American missionaries from West Africa were treated for Ebola in August. But Obama clung to his position for two more weeks, even after it began to look ridiculous.
Only with public confidence slipping and dozens of congressmen calling for a ban on travel from West Africa did Obama submit to the kind of grand theatrical gesture he abhors: He canceled a campaign trip to hold an emergency cabinet meeting and appointed Ron Klain, a veteran political operative, to coordinate the government’s Ebola response. Then the pageantry of White House crisis response reached its familiar end point, with anonymous aides telling the New York Times that Obama was “seething” at the botched response and the criticism that he’d mishandled the crisis.