Ebola Czar Has Two Jobs, One Problem

Political strategist Ron Klain has the savvy to manage the U.S.'s efforts against Ebola. Does he have the power?
But can he help the real president?

The trick to appointing an Ebola czar - a decision that President Barack Obama got mostly right in naming veteran Democratic operative Ron Klain -- is that the two problems this "czar" is supposed to solve are close to opposites.

The first challenge is political: to quell the widespread, unjustified hysteria over the epidemic in the U.S. The panic (at least in the view of the press and political elites) turns a manageable situation into a crisis -- and, as the political scientist Nelson Polsby used to say, a crisis is when everyone agrees that Something Must Be Done. So Obama was pressured to Do Something, even though "the system is actually working," as public health expert Harold Pollack pointed out. Appointing a czar gets everyone to pause for a few days, allowing the frenzy to dissipate enough that pressure for nonsensical measures abates.

The second problem -- the government part -- is different. Czars are often brought in when the structure of the federal government is seen as a poor match for specific challenges that arise. Ebola is the responsibility of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet there's the foreign policy element, which means the State Department. And the Transportation Security Administration. And the Federal Aviation Administration. And probably a dozen other agencies. Federalism means the states (and their untold agencies) are involved as well. Getting everyone to work together is the president's job, and since occupants of the Oval Office are overloaded with these things, the sensible practice has been to appoint a single outside person to manage that coordination.

Klain, who has served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, should be well-suited to juggle both the bureaucratic and political jobs. Despite Republican complaints about the appointment, the expertise needed is in bureaucratic and White House politics, not epidemiology. Presidential scholar Matthew Dickinson explained that the best czars have stayed out of making actual policies; they merely coordinated the various professionals at different agencies and levels of government.

As Dickinson points out, however, Klain will be reporting to the White House staff, rather than directly to the president, reducing his potential clout. That isn't an issue if appointing him is mainly about Doing Something; it is a problem if he actually has to do something. His effectiveness might be reduced.

Al Hunt argued that David Petraeus would have been a better choice than Klain to deal with the political problem. I would never play down the bureaucratic skills learned by advancing in the military, but White House experience is more relevant to this particular job. As Dickinson argues, the risk for the president in appointing a czar is that it moves responsibility for the problem a lot closer to the Oval Office. Obama might well have preferred someone with a lower public profile and little history of working the press on his own behalf.

If the job is mostly just symbolic -- to show that the president is on top of a situation which is already under control -- then everything should work out. But if real coordination among agencies is necessary and if there isn't a direct line to the president, it isn't clear that Klain, or any czar for that matter, will have the clout to make things happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Katy Roberts at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.