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The New Ebola Czar Isn't a Doctor. Should We Care?

Ron Klain is a veteran D.C. operative and manager

Pete Souza/Rapport Press/Newscom

The federal government’s Ebola response now has a czar. President Obama has named Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Biden, to coordinate the agencies handling the disease.

Many Americans know Klain, who was a close adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, from Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of him in the HBO movie “Recount.” Washington insiders know Klain as a smooth, seasoned manager with a feel for both politics and policy. "He is one of the most capable people I've ever worked with in government,"  Jared Bernstein, who was Biden's chief economist, said via e-mail. "[He] brings with him a deep understanding of politics and policy along with a lot of experience working across agencies and departments."

One thing Klain does not have is deep expertise in medicine or emergency preparedness—and that surprised me. Why not pick somebody whose resume includes a stint at the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, or maybe the Federal Emergency Management Agency? This is not the first time the federal government has confronted a biological menace. An official who’d lived through and worked intensely on responses to SARS, Avian flu, or even HIV might bring critical and beneficial experience to the table.

Congressman Andy Harris, an anaesthesiologist, was among the Republicans critical of the move for precisely that reason:

Still, the Administration doesn’t lack for expertise on disease and potential outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control has made some mistakes, but nobody I know questions the expertise of Tom Frieden, CDC's director, or Anthony Fauci, who is in charge of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci, in particular, has been working on these sorts of issues since the 1980s, when he was a key player in the government response to AIDS. (If there's a need for more medical knowledge, perhaps the Senate could act on Obama's nominee for Surgeon General?)

In addition, the primary tasks of a czar are to coordinate action and advice among the different agencies—and to serve as a reassuring public spokesman. Klain has done that. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Klain worked on Capitol Hill before becoming Gore's Chief of Staff during the Clinton years—a role he reprised, from 2009 to 2011, in Biden's office. He has a reputation for knowing the ins and outs of government and how to make things happen—a reputation that Neera Tanden, who worked in both the Clinton and Obama Administrations, noted in an approving tweet. 

She elaborated over e-mail:

He also has a keen understanding of how to manage the Hill, press, communications, layers of government. The reality is that this situation calls for dealing with multiple and diverse agencies—CDC, military, NIH, State—managing diverse issues, from direct patient health to airline travel. He is extremely capable and there are few managers as good as him.

As Biden's chief of staff, Klain was directly responsible for overseeing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a.k.a., the stimulus. Although the objection of some derision on the right, the program is considered by many observers a model for an efficient, effective program that spanned multiple agencies as well as federal, state, and local governments. "Ron basically ran the stimulus," says journalist Michael Grunwald, whose book, The New New Deal, is the definitive account of ARRA. "He was Biden's henchman—he made the trains run on time. And under budget. And with almost zero fraud."

Update: I added the quote from Grunwald, who knows the subject as well as anybody.