President Obama’s Ebola problem

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The Ebola crisis in the United States has become an anchor threatening to sink the Obama presidency.

Already under fire from critics who saw the federal response to the outbreak as disorganized and timid, things went from bad to worse on Wednesday, when it was revealed a second nurse had contracted the disease while treating a Liberian man at a Dallas-area hospital. 

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More alarmingly, the diagnosis was made just hours after the nurse, 29-year-old Amber Vinson, had flown from Cleveland to Dallas on a commercial airliner, despite reporting to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that she had a fever.

That Vinson was allowed to travel at all — along with continued questions about why federal procedures for Ebola treatment appear not to have been implemented in Dallas — have prompted serious questions about the administration’s handling of the disease less than three weeks before the midterm elections. 

Democrats are expected to lose significant ground in those contests, in no small part due to public dissatisfaction with Obama and resilient questions about the president’s competency. 

And concessions from the White House and CDC that there were multiple “shortcomings” in the administration’s response are only likely to deepen those fears.

The president has little political capital to spare.

Obama’s approval ratings were already at a record low of 40 percent according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday — and taken before news broke about the new Ebola patient. That same survey found 39 percent of voters view the Democrats favorably — the worst showing for Obama’s party since 1984.

The precipice on which the president now rests is eerily similar to the one that confronted former President George W. Bush at the same point in his term. 

The former president, doomed by a series of political and policy missteps, became quickly viewed as incompetent, limiting his ability to govern effectively.

Obama hasn’t had a major error like Katrina or the Iraq War. But the cumulative effect of careening through an unrelenting two years of crises, from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Secret Service, has had a similar effect on perceptions of the president. 

The “No drama Obama” White House has long prided itself on not overreacting to crises.

They say Obama is far more concerned about the nuts and bolts of governing than short-term political gains or losses playing out in the media.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest, asked Wednesday whether Obama remained confident in CDC Director Tom Friedman, said “that pointing fingers of blame will not be constructive here.”

“What’s evident, I think, from this president’s leadership style is that he’s focused on solving problems,” said Earnest, who steadfastly denied ulterior motives for the president’s cancellation of a campaign and fundraising swing. Obama instead met with senior staff on the Ebola response. (The president also canceled his events on Thursday to focus on Ebola.)

The major takeaway from that meeting was the creation of CDC “SWAT teams” that would swarm to local hospitals to help them implement proper policy procedures if another American patient was diagnosed with Ebola — something the agency itself had already announced a day prior.

Obama did not name a czar to lead the government’s response, nor did he institute travel bans from the West African countries where the Ebola outbreak is pervasive, as some Republicans have suggested.

That left many questioning why the CDC hadn’t already had strike teams in place, given that Ebola had surfaced months earlier — and again underscored perceptions the administration appeared reactive rather than proactive. 

History suggests that the president’s measured response to crises has not paid dividends. While White House officials chortle at “phony scandals” like the IRS targeting of political groups or the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, polls show that trust in the government and the president’s handling of foreign policy have been steadily eroding. 

And while the president has long resisted efforts by Republicans to bully him into firing top officials, the result has been a steady trickle of bad news that ends up causing more damage to his administration. Just weeks ago, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned after a growing list of blunders became too significant to ignore. Months earlier, Obama was similarly reticent to cut ties with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Rather than seeming above the fray, Obama can appear detached and distant. 

Obama himself acknowledged the problem earlier this month when pressed on why he played golf immediately after giving a statement on the beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS.

“There's always going to be some tough news somewhere, it's going to be there,” Obama told "60 Minutes." “But there's no doubt that after having talked to the families, where it was hard for me to hold back tears listening to the pain that they were going through after the statement that I made, that I should've anticipated the optics.”

But that’s done little to change his behavior or how the White House calibrates its response to crises.

Asked Wednesday if the administration had at all considered the politics of the Ebola crisis, Earnest jumped to insist they had not. 

“I’m sure there are many people who have considered the political ramifications of this response and today’s decision to alter the schedule, but the fact is that that hasn’t crossed the minds of the president’s senior advisers here at the White House,” he said. 

But for the president — and the congressional Democrats fighting alongside him for their political survival — it might be time for the White House to do just that.