Barack Obama

By Juliet Eilperin
October 16, 2014 – at 10:46 PM

President Obama has canceled campaign trips, convened high-level meetings with his top security and health advisers, and consulted with seven heads of state around the globe in an effort to contain the spread of Ebola. All in the past two days.

But all the scrambling has done little to reassure a jittery American public that the danger is contained or to stanch the political fallout, some of it from lawmakers in his own party, in the run-up to tough midterm elections next month.

Cognizant of the dangers that come from going before the public without answers, Obama has emphasized the low probability that the deadly disease will become a large-scale outbreak in the United States because it is not easily transmitted. But in the wake of acknowledged errors that led to the infections of two nurses in Dallas, the White House is now engulfed in a crisis that has resurrected questions about the president’s governing style.

After meeting with top aides in the Oval Office for nearly two hours Thursday night, Obama sought to address some of the criticism lawmakers have lodged against him by saying he may appoint one person, or “czar,” to oversee the federal response. But he reiterated that Americans remain safe.

“I understand people are scared,” the president said. “I do want everyone to understand it remains a very difficult thing to catch. The risks involved remain extremely low for ordinary folks.”

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview Thursday the administration was seeking “a delicate balance” as it grappled with questions about how best to address the disease on American soil.

“We need to try to calm people because many people are fanning the flames here in a way that’s deeply irresponsible, but we also understand that there is real concern, and we’re trying to be sensitive to that,” Pfeiffer said. “That’s the balance we’re trying to strike.”

The vigorous public health debate has led to sharp political criticism for the president.

At a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said the Ebola issue had become a “major concern” for people across the country and a top issue in many congressional races. “It’s one more question about whether President Obama is up to the task of handling something like this; did he take it seriously enough, early enough?”

Even some of the president’s allies have questioned his approach. Rep. Bruce Braley (D- Iowa), who broke away from his campaign for the Senate to be at the hearing in Washington on Thursday, said he was “greatly concerned . . . that the administration did not act fast enough in responding” to the Ebola cases in Dallas.

Braley is in one of the most closely contested Senate races, and a Democratic loss in Iowa would severely harm chances that his party retain majority control of the Senate. Which could explain why White House press secretary Josh Earnest did not challenge Braley’s assessment, saying instead that the congressman “is somebody that has a reputation for being willing to speak truth to power, whether they’re in the same party as him or not.”

And even as Earnest emphasized the federal government was moving swiftly to address some of the problems that had led to the secondary infections at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, he acknowledged the president “believes that some aspects of this response have fallen short of his expectations.”

A second health-care worker tested positive for the deadly virus.

Since Saturday, the president and his aides have begun digging into the most granular aspects of public health, from the conditions of the two infected nurses to whether doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs had infectious disease expertise they could share with other medical professionals.

One White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Obama had been pressing his staff for answers on a variety of questions to not only treat the two health-care workers but to be prepared to handle future infections that Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others have warned are likely to occur in coming weeks.

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