"Remember, there was no small amount of skepticism about our chances," he said with some understatement. "People were understandably afraid. And, if we're honest, some stoked those fears. But we believed that if we made policy based not on fear, but on sound science and good judgment, America could lead an effective global response while keeping the American people safe, and we could turn the tide of the epidemic."
On Wednesday, he could not resist recalling the bad, often-partisan advice he was getting in October over his response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the fears of it spreading to the United States. The coverage on cable news channels was nonstop, and the partisan assault was fierce and unrelenting with elections only weeks away. There was enormous pressure to cancel flights from the affected regions and ignore the doctors who said that would be counterproductive.
"In the 21st century, we cannot build moats around our countries. There are no drawbridges to be pulled up. We shouldn't try," he said. With Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the survivors, in the audience, the president recalled how controversial it was to bring him to the United States for treatment. "Some worried about bringing the disease to our shores." But he said he sided with the experts who knew "that we had to make the decisions based not on fear, but on science."
With Republicans often branding him as a non-believer in "American Exceptionalism," Obama offered his own definition. "What makes us exceptional is when there's a big challenge and we hear somebody saying it's too hard to tackle, and we come together as a nation and prove you wrong."
He did not name those he thought had been proven wrong this time. But he dismissed them as "those who like to fan fears." He recalled late October as "three weeks in which all too often we heard science being ignored, and sensationalism."
Looking back on what was said in those three weeks, the criticism does, indeed, look sensational and often less than fully informed by what the doctors knew. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin blasted the president's "incompetency," adding, "You can't trust the Obama administration." Donald Trump objected to aid workers being allowed into the country and tweeted, "Ebola has been confirmed in NYC with officials frantically trying to find all of the people and things he had contact with. Obama's fault." He added in another tweet, "A TOTAL incompetent."
The deputy chief of staff to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted, "Before Obamacare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in the U.S." His boss lamented that Obama lacked "sufficient seriousness" about protecting the American people.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky drew "Three Pinocchios" in the Washington Post's Fact Checker column for insisting that he knew better than the Centers for Disease Control on how to catch Ebola. He suggested people were more at risk of being infected with Ebola than AIDS, saying Ebola is "incredibly contagious." Accusing the administration of downplaying contagion, he said, "You start to wonder about a basic level of competence."