When Ron Klain leaves his post as the White House's "Ebola response coordinator," or czar, sometime early next year, don't expect a big send-off from President Obama, much less a declaration of mission accomplished. In all likelihood, the disease will still be raging in parts of West Africa, and the U.S. will still have a sizable military presence there to combat it. The CDC will still be warning of the possibility of isolated cases on domestic soil, and the Department of Homeland Security probably won't have lifted the heightened security and travel restrictions it put in place in the fall.
But as President Obama himself noted last week, the public's attention has moved on from Ebola, and so, too, will Klain. A respected former top aide to both Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, Klain arrived in the White House in October as the designated behind-the-scenes fixer of a crisis that was roiling the administration just weeks before a national election. He was given the title of coordinator, but it was never precisely clear what he did. Republicans panned the selection because Klain was not a doctor or a scientist, while reporters complained that he rarely appeared in public. During Obama's last two extensive remarks on Ebola, he never mentioned Klain or his work.
"There is no doubt we've made substantial progress against Ebola since Mr. Klain came on board," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday after confirming a report that Klain would return to his job in the private sector by March 1. He noted that as a special government employee, and not a full-time staffer, Klain's service was capped at 130 days. As for specific accomplishments, Earnest pointed to the expansion, to 35 from three, in the number of U.S. medical facilities deemed fully capable of treating an Ebola patient.
"That is a testament to the efforts that Mr. Klain has undertaken to integrate the response from a variety of agencies to ensure that we're focused on these goals. We've made substantial progress thanks to his leadership, and we're certainly appreciative of all that he's done."
Will there be a new Ebola coordinator after Klain leaves? Earnest said that would be decided closer to his departure while noting that the various government agencies preparing and responding to Ebola now had "a pretty routinized process" in place. In other words, they got this.
A more cynical, though perhaps no less accurate, answer would be to say that it depends on how many Ebola cases there are in the U.S. come February, and therefore how many headlines the disease generates. Obama may not have hired Klain to be the public face of the administration's response, but his hiring was designed to tamp down a public furor. In that respect, it was a job well done.