October 20, 2014 by Rich Cooper
There is not much the Republicans and Democrats can agree upon with just about two weeks to go until the Midterm elections, but the fumbled response of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Ebola threat has both parties giving the President’s team a resounding (and joint) review of thumbs down.
To try and calm an anxious public and improve its own public confidence levels in dealing with the current Ebola crisis, the President decided to tap a veteran Washington political insider, Ron Klain, to coordinate the messaging and response going forward.
I’m sure on paper and in some practical sense there is some wisdom to this sudden appointment of a veteran Washington hand to be the point person for a crisis where messaging and operational confidence have been lacking. But in practicality, it is a suspect decision, completely undermined by the qualifications of the person tapped to carry out its duties. By appointing Ron Klain as his “Ebola Czar,” the President has allowed politics to trump emergency management experience. That by itself is a poor decision because it sends all of the wrong messages when messaging and experience are critically important.
The Ebola threat as experienced by healthcare professionals in Texas, other healthcare institutions around the United States, as well as ports of entry, transportation services, and geopolitical pieces involves a number of intricate operational mechanisms where people in the know – not in politics – are the best qualified to deal with them. That does not mean that politics are involved with those things but rather they need to be a secondary, if not tertiary considerations to real operational decisions that are far different than making sure an elected official looks good in front of the TV cameras and their glowing legacy for the history book is preserved.
If you have people with those operational skills (and I would argue that people who work in emergency management in healthcare, transportation, etc. have those skills) and are allowed to do their jobs, the politics and favorable legacy sheen will appear as a natural result. Choosing a seasoned, accomplished political operative, which Mr. Klain is, tells an anxious nation and world, as well as the overzealous, practically fear-generating media that the politics of this situation transcends, the operational experience that is presently needed.
I have no doubt about Mr. Klain’s impressive accomplishments and abilities. You don’t hold the jobs he has held or been a part of some of the historic moments where he’s been on the inside and are not really good at what you do. That being said, his world is political messaging, and this current situation, while it has dramatic political implications, needs to be above it for a change.
The emergency management community has evolved and matured over the past two decades, and as a result, it should be the default group that is tapped to help lead us through our bad days into better, more coordinated and effective ones. We’ve had any numbers of instances such as 9/11, Katrina, BP/Gulf Oil Spill, H1N1, the Haiti Earthquake and so many other big and smaller events around the country and the world that we’ve got some very real experiences that we’ve learned from.
In addition to many of those painful incidents and lessons learned, we, as a nation, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, in time, people and other resources modeling, planning and exercising for incidents like we have unfolding before us. As such, the emergency management community should be given the task to guide our national ship into calmer waters while dealing with the very real life and death issues that these situations reveal.
The President chose a political chess master instead of an emergency-management operationally centric one to manage the Ebola crisis. Somehow, he failed to learn a lesson from the first part of his administration, where a seasoned and statutorily empowered individual devoid of politics was given the lead position to respond to a crisis that involved citizens, communities, commerce and lots of lots of cameras. That person was former USCG Commandant Thad Allen and the situation was the BP/Gulf Coast Oil Spill.
If you’re looking for a modern day Cincinnatus, devoid of politics but heavy on experience, to lead you through a really bad situation, Thad Allen has earned that laurel wreath and chariot ride. He proved it during Katrina, years before the BP/Gulf Oil Spill and only got better at it.
Another recent example of an emergency manager coming to the rescue of a complex situation with lots of media glare and hyperventilation was when FEMA’s Administrator, Craig Fugate, was tapped to coordinate the response along the U.S. southwest border, dealing with the unaccompanied alien children. By no measure was Fugate a border security expert and FEMA has no jurisdictional responsibilities over the U.S. border, but he was chosen to coordinate the issue because of his expertise in emergency management.
In both examples, Allen and Fugate, along with many other emergency management professionals from a multitude of states, industries, and specialty areas, have only gotten better and wiser at addressing complex problems and sharing the lessons along the way. If given the chance to lead in this tragic situation, I have no doubt the emergency management community would distinguish itself again.
Aside from the purely political resume that Ron Klain offers, the President has appointed a person with ZERO legal or statutory authority to be his Quentin Tarantino Pulp Fiction “fixer.” As hopeful and quasi-aspirational as that person and position might be, it undercuts the very foundation the larger homeland security community has been working to build since 9/11 on national, regional, and local scale.
In a timeframe where we’re all really anxious about the state of the world both near and far, I find the President’s decision and selection to be very disappointing. If the incessant pandering, finger pointing and fear mongering to the cameras by just about every political leader and media outlet has taught us anything, it is that politics complicates everything, and when it is empowered in situations such as we have now, fears and concerns fail to be settled. Empowered and able to perform their jobs is when emergency management can right the ship and problems can be solved, and isn’t that the ultimate measure of success?