It has become a cliché of the Obama presidency: Whenever President Obama seems slow to react to a crisis, it becomes his “Katrina moment.”
The BP oil spill, the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the rise of the Islamic State – all invited comparisons to hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Government response at all levels was weak, but it was the iconic photo of President George W. Bush surveying the damage from the safe remove of Air Force One that sealed it as the original “Katrina moment.” His presidency never recovered.
In a fundamental way, the Ebola situation in the United States is not another Katrina. One person has died and two more have been diagnosed with the illness. Katrina took 1,833 lives. With Ebola, the crisis is centered in West Africa, where more than 4,500 people have died.
For Obama, the nature of the Ebola issue changed on Sept. 30, when Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person in the US to be diagnosed, and then die. Thus began a narrative of botched calls, starting with the hospital in Dallas that mishandled his case and continuing with a government response widely seen as behind the curve.
Behind the scenes, Obama is reportedly furious. But in public, as ever, the president has maintained his cool demeanor, as he has sought to reassure the public. Yet that posture has only added to the sense that his administration isn’t on top of events – inviting the latest Katrina comparison.
“His White House team has really throughout his administration -- but particularly in recent years, when approval ratings have been languishing – seemed not to anticipate developments,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “And maybe even more important, it hasn’t anticipated the politics that accompany developments, whether it’s Syria, or ISIS, or Ebola.”
One exception is hurricane Sandy, the East Coast storm that struck on the eve of the 2012 election. Obama was applauded for his handling of the disaster – an anti-Katrina, at least politically – turning an “October surprise” into an October boost on his way to reelection.
Now, two and a half weeks before crucial midterm elections that will shape the final two years of his presidency, Obama is grappling with a public health matter that poses a vanishingly small risk to most Americans but has sparked widespread fear.
Politically, Obama is in a no-win situation – particularly given the fear factor.
“That’s a paradox of a president in a crisis,” says Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “If he seems to be taking it too seriously, he’ll encourage a panic. But if he doesn’t take it seriously enough, he’s seen as lackadaisical.”
This past week Obama, in fact, broke from his usual modus operandi. Both Wednesday and Thursday, he ditched plans to travel for campaign appearances and fundraising to stay in Washington for consultations on Ebola. It was a rare departure for a White House that insists the president can handle his duties from anywhere, including Air Force One, via secure telecommunications.
Last month, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama said that “optics” do matter, and that he should not have played golf immediately after making a public statement about the beheading of American journalist James Foley in August.
Obama this week also appointed former vice presidential aide Ron Klain to serve as “Ebola czar” – or in White House parlance, “Ebola response coordinator” – after maintaining he did not need such help. Mr. Klain's role will be to “make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward,” and give the other advisers on his Ebola team room to focus as well on the other major issues in their portfolios, Obama said.
Klain also puts a new public face on the Ebola response, a sign that the administration needed public relations help. But in keeping with the political season, Klain’s appointment also sparked a partisan backlash. Republicans slammed him as a “political hack.” Klain served as lead Democratic counsel in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case, and has no medical background.
Another key government figure in the Ebola response has been Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who faced criticism Thursday in a congressional hearing over agency missteps. Dr. Frieden had offered reassurances that the nation’s public health system could handle the Ebola threat, but was proved wrong with the few cases to date. In one example, the CDC had cleared one of the nurses later diagnosed with Ebola to fly on a commercial airliner, despite her symptoms at the time.
Frieden has acknowledged mistakes, and some Republicans have called on him to resign. But his job looks safe for now, observers say. By the end of Thursday’s hearing, none of the members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations had called for his resignation.
In fact, after the hearing, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Tim Murphy (R) of Pennsylvania said he wanted Frieden to stay and “get the job done,” Politico reported.
In short, Frieden isn’t another Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Katrina. Despite President Bush’s initial praise – "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" – the FEMA director soon became the face of incompetence, and resigned in disgrace.
For Obama, the looming midterms add another layer of politics to the Ebola situation. Democrats are fighting an uphill battle to keep their Senate majority, and Ebola isn’t helping. In close races, Republicans are trying to lash their Democratic opponents to the issue in debates, speeches, and campaign ads.
In the Iowa Senate debate on Thursday, Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst criticized the Obama administration and her opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley (D), for being “reactive, rather than proactive.” Congressman Braley, at least, could say that he had just been in Washington at the House subcommittee hearing on Thursday to ask “tough questions.” Braley also distanced himself from Obama in calling for a travel ban from West Africa. The administration, including Frieden, opposes such a ban, saying it would be counterproductive.
In a recent debate in Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall (D) offered a typical Democratic argument: He blamed Republicans for budget-cutting that he said has harmed the government’s response to Ebola. His opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner (R), mocked the CDC priorities, which he said included "Jazzercise programs, massage therapy, and urban gardens.”
Other Republicans are linking Ebola with another incendiary political matter, border security, suggesting that “bad actors” may try to sneak into the US to spread infection.
How the history books remember the Obama administration’s handling of Ebola will, of course, depend on what happens. Unlike a hurricane, which is a defined event, the challenge of contagion has no time frame. At least Obama cannot be blamed for overreacting. In 1976, fear of swine flu led President Gerald Ford to order nationwide vaccinations. When three senior citizens died shortly after being immunized, a public outcry ensued, though there was no evidence of a link to the vaccinations.
Political analyst Craig Crawford wrote in 2009 that "Gerald Ford's decision to inoculate every person in the country (including himself) resulted in a political debacle that contributed to a reputation for incompetence that scuttled his 1976 election bid."
Obama no longer faces voters, but his Democratic allies do. And as a political matter, Ebola is one more security issue the party doesn't need.