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White House Makes A Point To Stay Out Front On Ebola


The administration has been busy reassuring the public that the Ebola is nothing to panic about in the US. That's what any White House would be doing in a similar public, health emergency. But for this White House, which is facing a drumbeat of criticism about its competence, the task is more urgent as NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Administration officials fanned out among the Sunday talk shows with a simple message. We are on top of this. President Obama's Senior Adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, went on "Meet the Press" to say the president was focused on the virus every.


DAN PFEIFFER: The first thing we need to do is make sure the American people understand how hard it is to contract Ebola and to understand that there is no country in the world better prepared than the United States to deal with this. We have the best public health infrastructure and the best doctors in the world. We've been preparing for this eventuality since the outbreak in West Africa started seven months.

LIASSON: But it's such as Ebola that's preoccupying the White House this term. There's been a series of crises, big and small. The Obama Care website, the veterans administration scandal, Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, the failures of the Secret Service, the child migrant influx, the underestimation of the danger presented by ISIS. The list goes on and on. Pfeiffer was asked whether the public had a right to doubt the White House.

PFEIFFER: People should know that we are - that every one of the situations you mentioned, where a problem arises we deal with it. We deal with it quickly. We deal with it forcefully to make sure it doesn't happen.

LIASSON: The White House is adept to cleaning up the damage. They fixed the ACA website. They got control of the border crisis. The president is now leading an international coalition and a military campaign against ISIS. But what about anticipating problems before they spin out of control? Bill Galston is a former Clinton White House aide.

BILL GALSTON: I don't think this administration has been very good at getting ahead of the curve. It seems to be blindsided over and over again and then has to play catch-up.

LIASSON: And Mr. Obama's headaches - just one month before Election Day - got a little worse this week with two swipes from former members of his own team. Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta is on a book tour telling USA Today that the president, quote, "kind of lost his way" and that he too often, quote, "avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities." Then David Axelrod, the president's former political advisor, criticized the White House for making this statement.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now Barack Obama says...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm not on the ballot this fall, but make no mistake - these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.

LIASSON: As you can hear, it's already a Republican attack ad, and that's frustrating many Democrats who've been struggling to reframe the election so it's not a referendum on the president or his policies.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It was a mistake.

LIASSON: The cascading series of problems - while individually unrelated - are helping Republicans feed a long-running narrative that the White House is incompetent. It's a criticism that's on the tip of the tongue of many conservative voters like Harry Allen of Georgia who was interviewed last week of part of NPR's bipartisan senate battleground poll.


HARRY ALLEN: I mean, he's a nice guy and all and perfectly intelligent, but I think he just does not have the background for it. He's in water over his head.

LIASSON: Of course Allen wouldn't and hasn't voted for the president but the danger for the White House is if independent voters or base Democrats begin to agree. In a midterm election, especially in the second term, a president's standing is one of the most important factors in his party's performance. Bill Galston.

GALSTON: People want their president to be in charge. I think one of the things that has happened in the past few months is that a concatenation of events has conveyed the impression that somehow events are spinning out of control. People are feeling pretty insecure, and one of the historical roles of the president is to serve as a source of security and reassurance. And it may be that when people look at President Obama right now, they're not getting those vibes.

LIASSON: Voters want the president to be forceful and decisive. They want him to lean in - the way he finally did with ISIS, causing his approval ratings to bump up. And right now, polls suggest the public still believes the administration can handle Ebola. The Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans are confident the government will prevent a major outbreak. Only 11 percent say they're very worried they will be exposed to the virus. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.