When it comes to Ebola, President Obama has found himself in a leadership battle with governors who may want to replace him — chief executives in New Jersey, Louisiana and elsewhere who are trying to outdo the president and each other as they seek to calm their constituents and bolster their reputations ahead of the 2016 elections.
Analysts say the Ebola crisis presents both a unique test of leadership and a lucrative political opportunity, and a number of high-profile Republicans are seizing on the outbreak with mixed results.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is under fire for his decision, made in conjunction with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, to quarantine a nurse returning from West Africa, the epicenter of the virus. Amid criticism of his decision and the fact that the nurse, Kaci Hickox, tested negative for Ebola, Mr. Christie stuck to his guns and said time will prove he was on the right side of the argument.
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was one of the first to call for a travel ban to and from affected countries in West Africa. Last week, he signed an executive order requiring Louisiana officials to monitor all travel to and from the region.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas — the state where the first Ebola death on U.S. shores occurred — also have called for a travel ban, something the White House has steadfastly rejected and cast as an unnecessary overreaction.
“We can’t hermetically seal ourselves off. The nature of international travel and movement means that the only way to assure that we are safe is to make sure that we have dealt with the disease where right now it is most acute,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday in a speech at the White House.
In the aftermath of the outbreak, Mr. Perry tried to project leadership in other ways, declaring Ebola presented an “all hands on deck” situation in his state.
Mr. Christie, Mr. Jindal, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Perry all are rumored to be considering a presidential run in 2016. For them, Ebola could offer a way to out-executive Mr. Obama while the entire nation watches.
“Ebola provides a great opportunity to attack Obama but also promote their own approaches to dealing with this crisis They are trying to appeal to a national audience. They can see all the media coverage that is coming out of Ebola and they want to be a part of that story,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
For its part, the White House has tried to walk a fine line between allowing governors and local officials to handle the situation as they see fit while also cautioning against going too far.
Mr. Obama on Tuesday criticized the moves made by Mr. Christie and Mr. Cuomo, and the administration reiterated Wednesday that, while it respects local authority, governors must measure their responses.
“State and local officials do have significant authority when it comes putting in place procedures they believe are necessary to protect the populations in their jurisdictions,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “We have made very clear what we believe science indicates should be the policy governing the active monitoring of individuals who have returned” from West Africa.
The outspoken governors, specialists say, may have played at least a small role in Mr. Obama’s decision to forego recent political travel, host almost daily White House meetings on Ebola and appoint Ron Klain as the administration’s Ebola czar.
At all times during the crisis, Mr. Obama wants to appear a level above Mr. Christie. Mr. Jindal and other governors, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written on presidential leadership.
“It creates multiple levels of leadership and that is not something the Obama administration wants in a crisis,” he said. “They want the public to look at the president as the central leader. The more people are perceived to be relevant here, the more likely it is the Obama administration doesn’t look like it is in charge.”