President Barack Obama would likely be the first to admit that his administration’s response to the first case of Ebola in the United States was not perfect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have adequate protocols in place, and two Dallas nurses caught the virus as a result. One of the nurses who contracted Ebola even received approval from the CDC to travel on Frontier Airlines, despite having a slight fever.
These errors have lent themselves to the narrative that Obama has mishandled the crisis. The most prominent example comes from Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek. “It didn’t require extraordinary foresight to anticipate the public freakout once the infection spread beyond [Thomas Eric] Duncan,” Green wrote. “The crisis required more of [Obama] than he seemed to recognize. But he was hampered by the same things that have plagued him all along: a liberal technocrat’s excess of faith in government’s ability to solve problems and an unwillingness or inability to demonstrate the forcefulness Americans expect of their president in an emergency.”
Green’s article criticizes Obama’s entire style of crisis management. (The piece is titled, “Obama Is Too Cool for Crisis Management.”) The White House has faced this critique frequently over the past year, from both the left and right, as it has rushed from one crisis to the next. Yet collectively, Obama’s responses to these numerous crises—from the scandal at Veteran Affairs hospital and the border crisis to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and most recently the Ebola outbreak—has been largely successful so far. The insatiable news media just hasn’t noticed.
You can break the crises Obama has faced over the past six months into three broad categories. The first are ones where he has had almost no ability to immediately fix the underlying problems. Think of the secret waiting lists at the Department of Veterans Affairs, civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown, and Israel’s war in Gaza. The issues at the VA were decades in the making and require significant reforms within the department.1 In Ferguson, the issue fell under the jurisdiction of state and local authorities—and was a product of racial and political tensions. And the Israeli-Palestinian war was almost entirely outside the administration’s control.
The second category includes crises where the president had limited tools at his disposal, such as the conflict in Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In both situations, the administration’s response was too slow, but has proven effective given limited options. The U.S. was not going to go to war with Russia, for instance, so Obama worked with the European Union to impose harsh sanctions on the Kremlin while seeking a diplomatic solution. That strategy seems to be working. The ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and rebel forces has so far held. It’s not a perfect solution, but faced with a hostile Russia, it’s a pretty good result. In fact, Ukrainian parliamentary elections this past weekend boded well for the country.
A similar situation has unfolded with Obama’s response to the Islamic State. He does not want to put U.S. forces on the ground, giving him limited ability to combat the terrorist organization. Instead, he has used airstrikes in Iraq and Syria while building an international coalition to fight the group. He also asked Congress—and received authority from it—to arm the moderate Syrian rebels. The majority of Washington and the country approves of the strikes. This policy response wasn’t controversial.
Finally, there are the crises the administration has had the power to address. Once again, the record is much better than the headlines suggest. The most apparent—and least talked about—is the border crisis. Over the spring and early summer, the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border skyrocketed. Immigration courts faced a significant backlog and the Department of Homeland Security was running low on funds to house and transport the kids. Obama and Senate Democrats correctly ignored GOP legislative proposals that would have caused more harm than good. Instead, the administration created a major public relations campaign to inform families in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that their children would not be allowed to stay in the U.S. The administration also pressured the Mexican government to crack down on human trafficking. The summer heat also likely deterred children from making the journey north. By the end of the summer, the number of kids crossing the border had fallen dramatically and the crisis had disappeared.
The administration has also handled the current Ebola outbreak far better than the media has given it credit for. Despite the CDC’s initial errors, both Dallas nurses have been cured of Ebola. A doctor returning from Guinea to New York who tested positive for Ebola last week followed CDC protocols and there is almost no chance that he infected anyone else. The administration also resisted substantial political pressure to implement a travel ban, which nearly all infectious disease experts agree is a bad idea. This is, to be fair, only part of the story. The other part is in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea where the disease has killed thousands of people. The administration was too slow to respond there, although it has now taken unprecedented action in sending 3,000 American soldiers to West Africa to build hospitals. It is sending aid as well.
The Obama administration is not blameless for the creation of these crises. The VA scandal grew under the watch of Obama and Eric Shinseki, the former head of the VA. The federal government was slow to help West African countries combat Ebola. There are good arguments that the White House was also too slow to respond to the Islamic State and Russia. These are fair criticisms, but Obama’s slow responses were not just a result of indecision. They were part of a careful strategy to get the policy response right.
Green’s essay highlights one other critical flaw in Obama's crisis management: His refusal to engage in the theatrical parts of the presidency looks terrible during crises. “Six years in, it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor—regardless of the public’s emotional needs,” he writes. “The virtues of this approach are often obscured in a crisis, because Obama disdains the performative aspects of his job.” The performative aspects of the presidency are particularly important during crises when the public is tense and needs a leader to inspire faith in the government. Obama hasn’t been that leader.
But it’s more important that the president craft effective policy responses to crises. Obama has done that—and the media coverage has missed it completely, focusing instead on Obama’s rhetorical shortcomings and downplaying his policy successes. Green’s piece is a perfect example of this. He lambasts the administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak, but at the end, he admits that the outcomes haven’t been that bad. “[Obama’s] record, even on issues where he’s drawn heavy criticism, is often much better than the initial impression would lead one to believe,” Green writes. “He may tackle crises in a way that ignores the public mood, yet things generally turn out pretty well in the end. … The best-case scenario is that the U.S. Ebola scare mimics this pattern. That could already be happening.”
This dynamic has certainly hurt Obama politically. “It’s often said in Washington that the best politics is good policy,” Green writes. “That hasn’t been Obama’s experience.” No, it hasn’t. But that’s largely not his fault. Faced with a media that exaggerates the failures of his crisis responses and ignores its successes, there isn’t much he could do. This dynamic isn’t just a problem for Obama, though. It’s a problem for the entire government. The narrative of Obama as a poor crisis manager undermines faith in government institutions, which makes it harder for those institutions to respond to crises when they strike. There are, of course, other good reasons why Americans have lost faith in the government. But the media certainly isn't helping.
Congress passed legislation in August to address the problems, although it may do more harm than good.