With pivotal midterm elections less than three weeks away, the Ebola scare in the U.S. and the federal government’s chaotic response are hitting at the worst possible moment for President Obama and congressional Democrats.
Two-thirds of voters are telling pollsters this week that they want the administration to impose a travel ban on airline passengers from three Ebola-ravaged countries in West Africa. The White House rejected that proposal again Thursday, saying it would drive potentially infected travelers underground and make it harder to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Pollsters say this tension with the public, coupled with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s muddled handling of the crisis, will further hurt a president with slumping job approval ratings all year.
“It’s pretty clear that the best politics is to do a travel ban,” said Jon McHenry, vice president of North Star Opinion Research in Alexandria, Virginia. “In that sense, the president, regardless of what’s going on behind scenes, seems to be detached and inactive on another situation that people care about. This is yet another case that seems to show a lack of leadership on his part.”
Mr. Obama was described privately as angry at an emergency Cabinet meeting Wednesday and demanded answers after a second health care worker at a Dallas hospital contracted Ebola even though advisers told the president that such an outcome was unlikely.
“The president was very focused on getting answers to some very basic and direct questions about what happened in Dallas and what steps are being taken to correct those shortcomings that have cropped up,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are demanding answers, too. At a congressional hearing Thursday, Rep. Bruce L. Braley of Iowa, who is locked in a tight race for a Senate seat, criticized the administration’s response to the Ebola crisis.
“I am greatly concerned that the administration did not act fast enough in responding in Texas,” Mr. Braley said.
Mr. Obama was busy Thursday calling lawmakers to make sure they “are aware of the [Ebola] strategy that we’re pursuing and are onboard with it,” Mr. Earnest said.
“If they have some suggestions for some policies that we can put in place that might benefit this response, then we’re certainly going to consider those as well,” he said.
Congressional Republicans also are trying to avoid blame for the crisis. The office of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio released a list this week of 14 actions that House Republicans have taken since August to address Ebola, including the appropriation of $750 million requested by the administration to fund a Pentagon-led humanitarian mission in West Africa.
Even former White House press secretary Jay Carney said this week that moves such as a travel ban and transferring infected patients in the U.S. to specialized hospitals “would be wise decisions to make.”
Richard Kelsey, an assistant dean at the George Mason University Law School, said Mr. Obama should use his much-touted executive pen to take more steps to protect the public.
“Where’s the pen?,” Mr. Kelsey asked. “Mr. Obama used his pen to give amnesty to illegal aliens. He has directed his administrative state to tighten [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations. He has attempted to sidestep the Senate on treaty authority with respect to climate change. His principal duty as president is to protect Americans. This president could properly use his powers by making common-sense travel bans from Ebola hot spots. For political reasons, he simply doggedly and ideologically refuses to do so.”
Pollsters say it’s too soon to gauge the impact of the crisis on the elections, but it’s clear the public is focusing intently on Ebola.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey this week found that 97 percent of respondents knew about the treatment and death of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who died of the disease in a Dallas hospital last week. Ebola is the most recognized news story of Mr. Obama’s presidency, more widely known than the Islamic State beheadings of Western journalists this year (94 percent) and the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 (91 percent).
Nearly two-thirds of Americans are concerned about an Ebola epidemic in the U.S., according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, despite repeated assurances from Mr. Obama and other administration officials that the chances of an outbreak are minimal. That survey found the number of Americans who say the government should be doing more to prevent additional Ebola cases in the U.S. is almost twice the number who believe the government is doing all it can to control the spread of the virus.
The poll shows that 91 percent favor stricter screenings of passengers traveling from West Africa.
The Ebola infections and the CDC’s missteps are keeping the news story alive and making it difficult for Democratic candidates to talk about topics other than the administration’s apparent incompetence, Mr. McHenry said.
“It’s another issue on which Democrats are having to defend the president or turn around and attack the country’s response on this,” he said. “At a time when they want to be talking about almost anything else, they’re talking about the administration again.”
He added, “It reinforces a pattern of what people believe that they’re seeing — a lack of leadership, a lack of engagement. Whether it’s being slow to react in Ukraine, slow to react in Syria with [the Islamic State], he charitably has a very deliberate approach but, being less charitable, seems to not put the sense of urgency on issues that voters want him to have.”
How the crisis plays out politically might well depend on whether any more cases of Ebola surface in the U.S., Mr. McHenry said.
“If someone in Ohio winds up getting this, then it’s going to look like a pandemic to the public,” he said. “I’m sure more people are going to die from the flu this year [in the U.S.] than from Ebola, but the news media has a fresh story to run with every day, there’s a new facet to it every day.”