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The uphill battle for Obama's new "Ebola czar"

President Obama named former White House official Ron Klain to serve as the U.S. "Ebola czar"

Andrew H. Walker

In the two and a half days since President Obama announced that Ron Klain would head up the federal government's response to the Ebola crisis he's already come under a barrage of criticism from Republicans for the fact that his expertise lies outside the field of healthcare.

Though he served as chief of staff two vice presidents - Al Gore and Joe Biden - and as a senior aide to the president, that missing line on his resume means that his critics will watch his every move, waiting for a misstep.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, belittled Klain as a mere "political operative" on CNN. On CBS' "Face the Nation," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, offered up the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart-surgeon-turned-politician as a "more appropriate type of nominee."

Before he named Klain to the position, Mr. Obama described the czar someone who would ensure "we can have a more regular process just to make sure that we're crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's going forward." His press secretary, Josh Earnest, characterized the job as "implementation expert." Klain will have to navigate the bureaucracies of several different agencies and coordinate the government's response more smoothly than it has so far.

More impartial actors say Klain's success or failure will hinge on how quickly he can establish legitimacy with the public health officials who are on the forefront of the fight against the virus.

"He will have to rely on the expertise of public health leaders, including the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] director and directors of highly functioning state and local health agencies. If he instead relies on political actors -- whether in the White House or Congress -- and therefore sidelines key public health actors, he will lose legitimacy quickly," Lawrence Gostin, the director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told CBS News.

Gostin said that if Klain is able to coordinate, mobilize and empower stakeholders in the public health community, "he can provide an invaluable service." But if he is merely one more stop in the chain of advisers that have to approve pressing decisions, his role could be "counterproductive."

At least one public health leader has already given Klain his stamp of approval, which is a good sign. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Klain brings exactly what is needed to the job.

"You don't need to be a health care person, you need to be somebody who's a good organizer. And his experience is extraordinary," Fauci said on "Face the Nation."

The White House has argued that the chief management credential that qualifies Klain for the job is his experience in helping to implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 stimulus package that poured about $800 billion into the troubled U.S. economy by way of tax breaks, investments and entitlements.

"What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert, but rather an implementation expert. And that's exactly what Ron Klain is," Earnest told reporters Friday. The White House maintains that the Recovery Act was a success for which Klain was partially responsible, and even outside observers agree.

"Ron really did make the stimulus train run on time, under budget, and with almost zero fraud. It was way more effective than people realize, and he deserves some credit for that," Michael Grunwald, a journalist who studied the Recovery Act for his book, "The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era," told CBS News.

The new job stands to involve an equally wide array of players ranging from the CDC to the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.

Another person who has experience in a "czar" position - Jeffrey Crowley, who served as the Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy for more than two and a half years during the Obama administration - said what matters most might be the network Klain has built throughout the administration and within Congress, where served as Staff Director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Committee, and the Chief Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

An effective person will be able to look at more than any one agency and say, "how can we have the biggest impact and how do you blend the various resources of the federal government in a smart way?" Crowley, who is now a distinguished scholar at the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, told CBS News. "He'll just intuitively know how to bring things together. I don't see him trying to compete with [CDC Director] Tom Frieden and he shouldn't. He'll have the comfort to let the doctors be the doctors."

Plus, Crowley added, "on day one he doesn't need to find out where the bathroom is. He doesn't need to figure out how to work his computer."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.