WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday chose Ronald A. Klain, a government insider best known for leading Democrats during the 2000 presidential recount, to head the nation’s response to the Ebola virus, a pick that drew immediate criticism from Republicans who questioned his lack of medical credentials.
Klain, who has ties to Massachusetts, served as chief of staff to vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore. His task as “Ebola czar’’ is to build a coordinated and visible response amid increasing concerns that the government has lacked one.
“Ron will put together the smartest, wisest medical team that can be assembled,” said Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat who hired Klain as a legislative aide in the 1980s. “We need someone who has superior leadership ability to coordinate all aspects of this issue and this threat. And there is no one I’ve ever met who is better able to do it than Ron Klain.”
The administration continues to face a daily barrage of Ebola-related challenges, at home and abroad. Officials in Texas on Friday requested travel restrictions for health care workers who treated Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who died this month in a Dallas hospital.
Also Friday, a Carnival Cruise ship was refused docking privileges in Cozumel, Mexico, because a passenger had handled one of Duncan’s lab specimens. And Governor Rick Perry of Texas joined a chorus of elected officials calling for an air travel ban from West Africa.
On the international front, the Associated Press reported that the World Health Organization has admitted it botched attempts to stop the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where some 4,480 people have died.
Obama has tried for days to demonstrate control of the situation after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted several errors in containing potential spread of the disease. Obama has canceled fund-raising trips, committed 4,000 military personnel to West Africa, addressed the public, and made open displays of convening top Cabinet officials. Friday’s appointment of Klain marks a new turn in trying to deliver a centralized response.
Klain will report to Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser, and to Susan Rice, the national security adviser, according to the White House. He will be in charge of coordinating efforts to isolate the disease here and to combat its spread in West Africa, according to the White House.
Critics said Klain lacks the needed experience.
Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who leads the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the position “an important and necessary step” but questioned Klain’s lack of medical knowledge.
“Prior administrations had permanent leaders on a range of bio-threats, including Ebola, with strong medical credentials,” he said in a statement. “While the president’s pick may have the ear of the White House and experience from the campaign trail, I am concerned he doesn’t have significant relationships in the medical community that are imperative during this current biological emergency.”
Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican who is also a physician, called Klain’s appointment “an unserious gesture at an incredibly serious moment.”
Supporters argued that Klain’s ability to navigate government agencies will be more valuable than a medical degree in coordinating actions from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration, White House staff, military and humanitarian resources in Africa, and other elements of the response. As Biden’s chief of staff, he helped oversee implementation of the 2009 federal stimulus program.
Markey hired Klain out of Georgetown University in 1983 as his legislative director, when Markey was serving in the House. Klain also ran Markey’s aborted Senate campaign in 1984, before graduating from Harvard Law School and serving as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Byron White.
Klain, a 53-year-old Indianapolis native, is now president of Case Holdings and General Counsel at Revolution LLC, a venture capital firm owned by former American Online chairman Steve Case.
During Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, Klain served as a director of rapid response — a skill that critics say has been lacking in the Ebola cases.
Klain may be best known for his role in leading Gore’s legal team during the 2000 presidential recount. (That effort was dramatized in the 2008 HBO movie “Recount,” in which he was portrayed by Kevin Spacey.) Supporters say the recount experience — drafting attorneys and coordinating legal strategies for more than 50 cases in a compressed time period — may be most relevant to the task ahead of him.
“It involved the mobilization of lots of resources, lots of understanding legal situations, and all under a time pressure,” said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who served as Gore’s senior policy adviser and worked with Klain in the Clinton White House.
Mitchell Berger, a Florida lawyer who worked closely with Klain during the recount and inside the Clinton administration, said Klain had to go “from zero, if you will, to 150 in less than 2 seconds” to create the legal team that argued all the recount cases.
That involved not only keeping track of courtrooms and briefings in federal cases and state courts all over Florida but also keeping allies calm amid threats of violence and amid a lack of sleep.
“He does not have any medical background,” said Benedict P. Kuehne, another Florida lawyer who worked on the recount. “But he’s an excellent crisis manager and, to the extent that a medical analogy is appropriate, he understands how to triage.”