The former Ebola czar who will be running President-elect Joe Biden’s White House has a knack for getting government agencies to cooperate while digging out from economic crises, colleagues said.
Biden’s decision to tap Ron Klain, a Washington insider who led the nation’s Ebola response in 2014 and 2015, as his chief of staff will be critical as the administration likely will be responsible for rolling out a vaccine nationwide and could be dealing with more surges in Covid-19 cases.
Health officials who worked with Klain as the Ebola czar praised his management from 2014 to 2015 of the largest outbreak of the disease, noting his ability to get agencies to work together and rely on the advice of scientists and public health officials.
“His greatest lament is how bifurcated and siloed our federal response generally has been,” said Tom Daschle, a former Democratic Senate minority and majority leader who worked on and off with Klain for a decade. Coordination is one of the key takeaways Klain mentions from his experience with the Ebola response, Daschle said. With Covid-19, “we’ve not seen the collaborative response necessary to be effective.”
Klain worked in Washington politics for decades in various positions within the Clinton and Obama administrations, and as a lobbyist, Supreme Court clerk, and general counsel for a Washington-based investment firm.
“The Ebola response is important not only because of the success in containing the outbreak within the U.S., but it showed that viruses don’t see country borders. It will be important for the U.S. to address the global response to Covid-19,” said Julie L. Swann, who has applied her expertise as head of North Carolina State University’s industrial and systems engineering department to responses from outbreaks ranging from pandemic flu to Covid-19.
State and local governments have compiled detailed Covid vaccine distribution plans, but existing federal plans haven’t clearly outlined the allocation of limited supplies to states and other entities, said Swann, who led a team selected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists to support states during Covid-19.
“One of the key roles of the federal government will be in allocating vaccine to states and commercial pharmacies,” Swann said. “The coordination of information is an area where the incoming administration could have a big impact, such as requiring the reporting of race/ethnicity data for vaccine administrations and making more data publicly available.”
Klain’s Ebola experience will “help him zero in really quickly on [Covid-19] issues that don’t get resolved and get to his level,” Nicole Lurie, who was the assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, said.
Getting Agencies Organized
Thomas R. Frieden, CDC director during the Obama administration, described Klain as a strong manager who made sure all of government got on the same page and implemented the Ebola response well. Klain worked with Congress to get Ebola supplemental funding approved. Frieden expects the same organized, science-based, and effectively communicated response to Covid-19.
“I didn’t know him before Ebola,” Frieden said. “He came in and got it exactly right. He got all of government working together in a concerted way. He never overstepped his role and was always deferential to public health and science. At the same time, he’s so incredibly smart that he could add value to any conversation.”
Individual agencies have their own personality, Lurie said, adding Klain could get them to come together and avoid duplication.
“You’ve got lots and lots of different people, each working a little bit in their own stovepipe,” she said. “You need to have somebody in that role who can work with different types of people who can spot the linkages and potential for synergy.”
Likewise, David Newman, a former National Security Council official who served as Klain’s chief of staff during his time as Ebola czar, said Klain understood that the White House’s role was to support the federal departments and agencies on the front lines of the response and to explain the U.S. strategy to the American people
“Ron Klain’s deep experience in government and public policy was essential to the success of the whole-of-government response to the West Africa Ebola crisis,” Newman, now an attorney at Morrison & Foerster, said. “Just as importantly, he empowered the government’s leading medical and public health experts, ensuring their voices and insights were heard by the president and the key decision-makers.”
Klain’s experience as Ebola czar coupled with his leadership in implementing the 2009 economic stimulus law make him ideal for the key White House post, said Bob Kocher, who served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president for health care and economic policy on the National Economic Council.
“We are facing two massive challenges—getting Covid under control and re-starting the economy,” Kocher said. “These are related.”
First Covid has to be managed more skillfully, and then there needs to be an enormous multiyear effort to create new businesses and jobs.
“We need a Covid Recovery Act to create at least 10 million jobs and converting a stimulus bill into actual jobs will be hard work that Ron is also well prepared to lead,” Kocher said.