Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Smartest Guy in the Room

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression.  And my first impression of President Obama’s handling of the Ebola crisis was that he seriously dropped the ball.  Yes, the Republicans have their share of blame for cutting NIH’s budget over the years, thereby making it much more difficult that we could find a vaccine.  But there’s no question that the current Administration has been slow to act, and that this may have led to the absurd way that the illness has been introduced to the United States via the now deceased “patient zero” and the nurses whom he has infected. 

Frankly, I suspect that if you spoke to him in private, the President would agree with that assessment.  The  New York Times reported yesterday that “Beneath the calming reassurance that President Obama has repeatedly offered during the Ebola crisis, there is a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response.”   Anger is a strong word and in this case, it’s probably mixed in with no shortage of personal shame.  After all, we elect Presidents to be in charge at times like this, not to depend on one or two underlings to get the job done, and until very recently, Obama has resisted calls to bring in a person with the specific charge of coordinating the fight against Ebola.  As a result, President Obama has told the nation in the clearest possible terms that the buck stops here!   So far, he hasn’t even merited a Gentleman’s C.

But that may be changing.

I truly can’t believe what I’m about to say, because it is so very opposite to my initial reaction.   Yet I think I actually support his decision not only to appoint an Ebola czar (which obviously makes sense) but to choose for that czar a man schooled in law and not medicine.   I actually feel somewhat hopeful about Obama’s choice of Ron Klain as the new sheriff in town.

Before I praise Klain, let me first state the obvious: picking that guy as Ebola Czar less than three weeks before a midterm election is a true head scratcher.  Ironically, the choice of a “political operative” to run a medical mission seems politically tone deaf.   The whole country is petrified about this disease -- scared that the media has been down-playing its gravity, scared that the disease will mutate into an airborne form, and scared that a potentially airborne disease with a 21-day incubation period will ultimately affect literally everyone in America who doesn’t live like a hermit.  On the surface, we don’t need a Washington insider to take on this scourge.  We need another C. Everett Koop – a gray-haired, avuncular doctor who could get on TV and reassure everyone that daddy is home, he knows what’s wrong, and he can fix it. 

The key word in that last sentence is “doctor.”  Surgeon General Koop was a medical doctor.  Ron Klain is a spin doctor.  If the subject is medicine, when C. Everett Koop spoke, people listened.  As for Ron Klain, if the subject is medicine, people have assumed that (a) he wouldn’t know what he was talking about and (b) to the extent he had an opinion, it was purely a political one.   Again, superficially, if you’re concerned that the Obama’s Administration’s reaction to date is to minimize the aggressiveness of its response to Ebola based on political considerations, this is the LAST person you’d want as an Ebola czar.

Sure enough, the reactions from the GOP have been predictable.  According to the New York Times, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was hardly pleased.  “Ebola is a health crisis, yet the president has appointed as his new Ebola ‘czar’ a partisan loyalist whose expertise is politics — not health,” Sessions said.  “One would think, faced with the prospect of an epidemic, the president would task an expert in epidemiology, not an expert in political spin.”  Similarly, the Washington Post quotes House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) as questioning “why the President didn’t pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background."

That’s an obvious question, one that I asked myself when I first heard about Klain’s appointment.   Why didn’t the President choose a doctor – and not just a doctor, but one with a relevant specialty – to head up this area?   Here’s the answer: because the President recognized that this problem is both complex and momentous enough to require someone with a skill set of a true Commander and Chief.  It requires many of the same skills, in other words, as a President of the United States.  For whatever reason, and perhaps it is because he is simply too busy on other things, Barack Obama is not up to the task.  So he chose the next best alternative – someone who is able to assimilate large amounts of information in a short period of time, put together a team of trained experts and manage them adroitly, and make quick and insightful decisions as soon as they need to be made.  President Obama decided that the name of this person is Ron Klain. 

Am I able to say conclusively that Obama made the right choice?  Of course not.  I didn’t even know who Ron Klain was this time last week.  But this much I do know – he graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School, which means that he isn’t just smart, he’s freakishly smart.  Having graduated from that school a year before Klain, I remember well the guys at the top of my class and how incredibly smart they were.  Moreover, from what I’ve read, Klain isn’t just a book worm.  He’s a people person who has worked Capitol Hill with the best of them.  In other words, he isn’t limited by the introversion that has plagued Barack Obama’s presidency from the start.    

To be sure, Klain is a trained spin doctor – an advisor who is expert on politics.  Now that he has come out of the shadows, he has his own spin doctors in the Administration.  Vice President Biden, for example, has touted Klain as a top notch problem solver and manager.  Those are among the most important credentials for this job, and yet they are precisely the credentials that I have yet to verify after reviewing Klain’s resume.   There is no question that he has held important jobs both in the public and private sector for more than a couple of decades.  So maybe Biden is speaking the truth.   At any event, even if Klain isn’t a picture-perfect choice for this task, you can understand why a guy like Barack Obama might think that a smarter and more extroverted version of himself would be a hell of a good choice.   Ask the Romanoffs – just like presidents, kings and emperors, czars can’t possibly be experts in each type of subject matter that they have to deal with.   What they must be are born leaders.   And it sure helps when they are the smartest person in the room.

We know in the case of Ron Klain that he meets that last standard.  Whether he has the leadership to match his intellect remains to be seen, but I for one am ready to give him a chance.  

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