Obama Is Too Cool for Crisis Management

Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor—regardless of the public’s emotional needs
Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Michael Reynolds/EPA/Landov (Oval Office); Alamy (2); Getty Images (4); iStock

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.

If all this feels frustratingly familiar, many former White House officials agree. The difficulty in formulating a response echoes the fitful efforts to address the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the advance of Islamic State, the rollout of healthcare.gov, and even the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo.

Administration veterans describe Obama’s crisis-management process as akin to a high-level graduate seminar. “He responds in a very rational way, trying to gather facts, rely on the best expert advice, and mobilize the necessary resources,” says David Axelrod, a former White House senior adviser. On Ebola, Obama’s inner circle has included Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, along with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, and Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco. By all accounts, Obama treats a crisis as an intellectual inquiry and develops his response through an intensely rational process. As former CIA Director Leon Panetta said recently in a TV interview, “He approaches things like a law professor in presenting the logic of his position.”

Six years in, it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor—regardless of the public’s emotional needs. The virtues of this approach are often obscured in a crisis, because Obama disdains the performative aspects of his job. “There’s no doubt that there’s a theatrical nature to the presidency that he resists,” Axelrod says. “Sometimes he can be negligent in the symbolism.” Lately, this failing has been especially pronounced. Few things strike terror in people quite like the specter of Ebola. An Oct. 14 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say they fear a widespread outbreak in the U.S. Cooler heads have noted that more Americans have been married to a Kardashian than have died from Ebola. But that fun fact misses the point: People fear what they can’t control, and when the government can’t control it either, the fear ratchets up to panic.

Americans’ views of deadly viruses such as Ebola are shaped by Hollywood movies such as Outbreak and Contagion, and when the prospect of a global pandemic arises, we expect a Hollywood president to take charge. Obama’s Spock-like demeanor and hollow assurances about what experts are telling him feel incongruous.

A bigger problem is that the Ebola experts in whom Obama has invested so much faith have often turned out to be wrong. Frieden and the CDC misjudged the ability of health officials to contain the virus and were caught flat-footed when it spread. “We wanted so badly to assure the public not to be frightened that we have frightened the public by having the credibility of public health questioned,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The whole notion that something as slippery and capricious as Ebola was as easy to contain as Obama confidently predicted was almost certainly misguided to begin with. “Medicine can be a very humbling profession,” Dr. Steven Beutler, an infectious-disease specialist at Redlands Community Hospital in Redlands, Calif., recently wrote in the New Republic, “and after more than 30 years of practicing infectious-disease medicine, I have learned that the ‘unanticipated’ happens all too often, especially where microbes are involved.”

It’s true that Obama’s task is made considerably more difficult by the antipathy that has marked the Republicans’ response to Ebola. Most seem more intent on stopping Democrats than on stopping the contagion. Their ads politicizing the virus have only added to the climate of fear. And their filibuster of Obama’s surgeon general nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has also silenced an authoritative voice on public health, for reasons as small-minded as those dictating the party’s line on Ebola: They’re carrying water for the National Rifle Association, which objects to classifying gun violence as a public-health issue.

Even so, the failure is mostly Obama’s. It didn’t require extraordinary foresight to anticipate the public freakout once the infection spread beyond Duncan. Obama, who’s better acquainted with Washington dysfunction than anybody, should have anticipated the partisan acrimony. The crisis required more of him than he seemed to recognize. But he was hampered by the same things that have plagued him all along: a liberal technocrat’s excess of faith in government’s ability to solve problems and an unwillingness or inability to demonstrate the forcefulness Americans expect of their president in an emergency.
It’s hard not to suspect that Obama’s lack of executive experience before becoming president is one reason why he often struggles to strike the right tone. In this way, he’s the opposite of the man who preceded him. “I still remember where I was when Bush took the bullhorn at Ground Zero,” Axelrod says. He was recalling one of the great moments of presidential theater, when George W. Bush climbed atop the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks. “I can hear you,” Bush shouted to the cheering rescue workers. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” In a stroke, Bush galvanized the nation.

Obama recoils from this kind of bravado—and bravado didn’t always serve Bush so well. (A certain flight suit comes to mind.) It also deserted him at critical moments like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But replacing the impulse and emotion that governed Bush with a fealty to experts has led Obama to develop blind spots of his own.

Two months before Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010, he felt assured enough about the safety of offshore drilling to open up 167 million new acres of ocean. “It turns out,” he told critics concerned about the environmental impact, “that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

The White House response to the subsequent explosion was classic Obama: He dispatched his Nobel-laureate energy secretary at the time, Steven Chu, to BP headquarters in Houston to brainstorm ideas for stopping the leak, tapping a new expert to replace the old ones whose views about the safety of offshore drilling were so tragically misguided. When that failed, Obama was left to twist in the wind and grouse about his bad fortune.

“I still have searing memories of the leak and our response,” Axelrod says. One cable network began broadcasting a live feed of the underwater gusher. To many Americans, it was a running gauge of Obama’s ineffectiveness when confronted with a disaster whose possibility he had blithely dismissed. “We finally made an Oval Office address, because we felt we had to have a presidential presence,” Axelrod says. Eventually, Obama bowed to public anger and imposed a moratorium on drilling.

Somehow, experiences like this haven’t tempered Obama’s faith in professional opinion or sharpened his sense of tragic possibility. He still seems caught off guard when things go wrong. In the case of Ebola, you also sense his annoyance at the panic over what remain extremely long odds of a serious outbreak. A thought bubble over his head seems to say: “I can’t believe everybody’s flipping out about this stuff!” But as Panetta recently noted, “My experience in Washington is that logic alone doesn’t work.”

The consequence this time is more than just a needlessly frightened public. An Oct. 16 report from Goldman Sachs concludes that, while the virus has so far had little effect on consumer sentiment, “the ‘fear factor’ associated with Ebola appears more significant than in past instances of pandemic concern.” Unlike such earlier pandemics as SARS, bird flu, and swine flu, the effect of an Ebola panic, the authors suggest, may mirror that of the Sept. 11 attacks, which temporarily caused people to avoid crowded shopping centers and flying on airplanes. The drag on gross domestic product growth in 2001 was estimated to be 0.5 percentage points.

Obama’s defenders argue that it’s become all but impossible to respond to a national emergency in a way that’s broadly seen as successful—that a feverish desire to find fault and assign blame overwhelms even the most capable administrations. That’s not quite true. There are examples of crisis management that not only obviated attack but also came to symbolize how government can function effectively. In 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed his fellow Arkansan James Lee Witt to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA was held in such low regard that it was known around Washington as “the turkey farm”—a dumping ground for incompetent patronage hires. Witt turned it around. (And he was no egghead; he has only a high school degree.) One important change was boosting public outreach through the media. “When they call, let’s give them an answer,” he told his staff. “If it’s bad news, let’s give it to them anyway.” Witt made the agency so effective at responding to floods in the Midwest and the Los Angeles earthquake that he eventually rated a glowing profile in People magazine (“A Natural at Disaster”).

Obama obviously shouldn’t hold his breath. But his record, even on issues where he’s drawn heavy criticism, is often much better than the initial impression would lead one to believe. He may tackle crises in a way that ignores the public mood, yet things generally turn out pretty well in the end. He and his economic team, though deeply unpopular, halted the financial panic and brought about a recovery that’s added jobs for 55 consecutive months. His signature health-care law addressed a slower-moving crisis; while similarly unpopular, it has delivered health insurance to more than 10 million people. Even Deepwater Horizon was nothing like the environmental cataclysm it threatened to become. “It really became a parable of how government can mobilize to solve a big problem,” Axelrod says. And he adds, “Bush didn’t get bin Laden—Obama did.”

The best-case scenario is that the U.S. Ebola scare mimics this pattern. That could already be happening. On Oct. 20, Texas health officials released from quarantine 43 people who had contact with Duncan. Both of the nurses who contracted the virus appear to be in stable condition. Belatedly, the CDC has created rapid response teams to dispatch to hospitals the moment Ebola is detected, and the Pentagon announced it was forming a 30-person team to back them up. The health-care system may soon be as prepared to handle an Ebola patient as Obama mistakenly believed it was three weeks ago.

It’s often said in Washington that the best politics is good policy. That hasn’t been Obama’s experience. Dragged down by Ebola and other headaches, his approval rating has dropped to 40 percent, the lowest yet in his presidency. Democrats are on the verge of losing the Senate partly as a result. This reflects the cost of botching the initial response to so many crises. All in all, it’s a fascinating case study in the interplay of modern media and politics, the sort of thing that would make for a good graduate seminar. “As Obama used to say all the time,” Axelrod says, “ ‘This shit would be really interesting if we weren’t right in the middle of it.’ ”

— With assistance by Mark Drajem, and Shannon Pettypiece

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