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Obama adds "Ebola czar" to contentious list of White House czars

President Obama on Friday appointed former White House official Ron Klain to serve as the "Ebola czar," following calls from a number of lawmakers for a single point person in the administration to oversee the government's response to the virus.

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This undated handout photo provided by Revolution shows Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. A longtime Democratic operative, Klain was tasked Friday by President Barack Obama with running the government's response to the Ebola crisis. (AP Photo/Revolution)
AP Photo/Revolution

"There has to be some kind of czar," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Sunday -- even though he once maligned the Obama administration for having "more czars than the Romanovs." Similarly, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, called on the president to appoint an Ebola czar, even though five years ago he introduced a bill that would have stymied Mr. Obama from appointing more czars.

Those Republicans and others loudly decried the so-called "czars" populating the White House at the start of the Obama administration -- even though, as then-White House communications director Anita Dunn pointed out, many of the "czars" in question were actually Senate-confirmed appointees, while others held White House jobs that have existed in previous administrations.

For instance, Richard Nixon appointed William Simon to serve as an "energy czar" in 1973. The White House "drug czar," meanwhile, has been part of the White House for decades.

While they've all had different jobs, White House czars are effectively "high-level coordinators for the policy problems that are salient enough to merit significant attention, often involving numerous bureaucratic entities," Boise State University Prof. Justin Vaughn wrote. Vaughn is publishing a book next year on presidential policy czars.

Though as Vaughn told CBS News, the White House itself rarely refers to these officials as czars. Rather, the media has used this term as shorthand for policy officials with long-winded titles. However, he noted, the term has been used for "increasingly silly reasons."

The Obama White House has had a "cyber czar," a "pay czar" to as a watchdog over executive pay during the bank bailouts, and even an "Asian Carp czar."

"We were just calling these people czars, and suddenly we had a czar problem instead of a vocabulary problem," Vaughn said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that Ron Klain is officially referred to as the "Ebola Response Coordinator." However, Earnest added, "Candidly, I don't care what you call him."

While past administrations have had "czars," the Obama White House has put a different spin on the role in some cases, Vaughn said. Officials like health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, climate czar Carol Browner and urban affairs czar Adolfo Carrion were in charge of certain aspects of the president's policy agenda. Only DeParle really accomplished much, given that climate policy and urban affairs issues largely took a backseat to health care reform in Mr. Obama's first term.

Klain, meanwhile, is "almost a more traditional version of a czar," Vaughn said, in that he is tasked with responding to a specific problem rather than achieving a certain policy agenda. Other czars in the Obama White House have served that sort of role, such as Jeff Zients, who oversaw the effort to fix HealthCare.gov.

Dunn, the former White House communications director, told CBS News that she agrees that Klain's role will be about "managing and coordination and probably less legislative policy making." She noted that Klain, as Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, was in charge of the stimulus effort and did "an extraordinary job coordinating across cabinet agencies."