THE BLOG
10/28/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Obama's Missed Opportunity

President Obama is experiencing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. Most Democratic House and Senate candidates in this year's midterm elections see the president as a drag on their campaigns; they avoid him at all costs (but welcome the money he still raises).

The reasons for the president's predicament fall neatly into two categories.

First, there has been domestic policy mismanagement: non-existing "shovel-ready" projects, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, the Veterans Administration, Solyndra, mixed signals on immigration reform, the seriously bungled 2013 Obamacare rollout, the Secret Service, and now the Centers for Disease Control's response to the Ebola virus.

Second, there has been foreign policy mismanagement: leaving Iraq prematurely, not supporting the Iranian youth protest movement, Benghazi, the "red line" in the Syrian sand, not supporting the Syrian rebels, endless nuclear negotiations with Iran, illegal spying on U.S. civilians by our intelligence agencies, and a "junior varsity" team called the Islamic State that caught the White House and CIA by surprise.

So why on earth, with so much growing uncertainty in the country about our ability to contain the spread of Ebola given the CDC's shortcomings, would the president name a political operative like Ron Klain as the new "Ebola czar"? I have never met Mr. Klain and readily acknowledge from what I have read that he probably has superb skills as a political operative and fixer (2000 Bush-Gore recount plus chief of staff to vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden).

But is he the voice and face that the American public will find reassuring in the current climate? It is reported this his role will not be a public one, but czars do not typically operate in the shadows, especially when there is a growing lack of confidence in the government's capability to combat Ebola. Someone needs to be visible who commands both respect and credibility.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who served eight years in Bill Clinton's Cabinet, would have been an excellent choice if Obama needed a Democrat for the job. She has outstanding experience in running complex organizations - not just the sprawling HHS bureaucracy but also three postsecondary education institutions (Hunter College, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Miami). She is no-nonsense, tough, effective, and knows the public-sector and private-sector medical communities. The only negative might be political: her close association with the Clintons, especially Hillary Clinton, but that relationship is more a strength than a weakness.

Perhaps the strongest Ebola-czar candidate would have been former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani's leadership immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks earned him recognition as "America's Mayor." He led his city and the country - he was ever-present, he explained, he commanded, he calmed, and he reassured. He was, of course, a partisan politician, but that fact virtually vanished as he rose to the occasion in a highly Democratic city after the worst direct attack on the nation since Pearl Harbor.

Moreover, by choosing a Republican, Obama would have countered the claim that he is too insular and listens only to a narrow clique of partisan White House advisers. Politically, choosing Giuliani would have blunted Republican criticism coming from this year's campaign trail and also positioned the president as bipartisan on an issue that tens of millions of Americans now find deeply troubling.

Giuliani might have declined such an offer. But who knows? Such a choice by Barack Obama might even have been considered "transformational."

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.