Obama, Katrina and the politics of Ebola

President Barack Obama talks with his Ebola Response Team on 16 October. Image copyright Getty Images

Ebola the virus has infected only a handful of Americans. Ebola the political crisis, however, is reaching epidemic proportions.

As with most major stories, pundits and politicians are quick to ask what it means for President Barack Obama. Is he up? Is he down? That's even more the case now, with mid-term elections looming that could shape the nation's political agenda for the next two years.

Justin Sink, of the Washington newspaper The Hill, calls the story "an anchor threatening to sink the Obama presidency".

He contends that by not stepping in earlier to take control of treating the infected away from the local Dallas hospital, the president re-enforced existing criticisms of his ability - and could endanger his fellow Democrats running for office.

"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," he writes.

Sink becomes the latest to invoke the K-word, Katrina, comparing Mr Obama's political situation with that of his predecessor, George W Bush, whose approval ratings cratered following botched recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

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

Although there hasn't been a "major error" like Katrina, he says, "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 problem, writes the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, is the administration's response, particularly at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has been "marked by double talk, runaround and gobbledygook".

"It is my impression that everyone who speaks for the government on this issue has been instructed to imagine his audience as anxious children," she writes. "It feels like how the paediatrician talks to the child, not the parents."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption President Bush's much-criticised handling of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is considered a turning point in his presidency

Like many other conservative critics, she wants the president to impose a US travel ban on citizens of affected African nations. It's a move the administration has so far resisted, arguing that it could be circumvented by people fleeing to ban-free countries, increasing the odds that the virus spreads in Africa.

While the Obama-is-incompetent line plays itself out in expected fashion, other conservatives are expanding their critique.

"The government's response to the outbreak has exposed the weakness of the modern administrative state in general," says the Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst John Daniel Davidson.

History, he writes in the Federalist, has shown that faith in government bureaucracies is misplaced and that better funding for agencies doesn't mean they're any more competent at their responsibilities.

"Perhaps it's time for officials at the CDC and the White House to admit that we're not entirely sure how easy it is to spread Ebola, stop blaming funding shortages, and unleash the power of private innovation to combat the virus," he concludes.

National Review's Yuval Levin takes that argument a step further.

"Do we really expect (or even want) our government to have the power and ability to smooth all of life's edges and be ready in an instant to address the consequences of, say, a major hurricane or massive oil spill or deadly disease outbreak?" he asks. "What do we think that government would be doing with that power the rest of the time?"

The ferocity of the attacks has some on the left shaking their heads.

"If President Obama found a cure for cancer, these would be the people who would blame him for putting doctors out of work," writes CNN's LZ Granderson.

"How can President Obama's response be characterised as negligent when his administration began directing resources - including more than $21m (£13m) from the US Agency for International Development - to areas hit with the virus within days of the first Ebola diagnosis?" he asks.

While the CDC and the Dallas hospital have made their share of mistakes, writes Talking Points Memo's Dylan Scott, the criticism of Mr Obama is overblown.

"Other legacy-defining crises - Obama's Katrinas, if you will, and that's been used now with Ebola, too - have come and gone," he writes. "The media have hyped those as well. Now Americans need level-headed information so that they know that their lives aren't imminently at risk because of Ebola."

It would be nice if conservatives could cool their rhetoric, writes the National Memo's Joe Conason.

"In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the country faced what felt like an existential crisis, many public figures, especially Republicans, urged everyone to put national unity and cooperation ahead of partisan bickering," he says. "It would be good if, just this once, they would follow their own advice."

Of course such advice could also be applied to the left-leaning group that was quick to blame Republican budget decisions for the Ebola outbreak in a television advert with the tagline "Republican cuts kill".

As a Bloomberg View editorial notes, neither side is covering itself with glory here.

"Instead there is the tiresome back-and-forth that both minimizes and exaggerates the government's role," they write. "Not only does it fail on its own terms, but it also represents a cramped and parochial response to what is, after all, a global crisis."

At this point the jury's still out on whether the US government's handling of the Ebola crisis will - at last, for real this time! - be Mr Obama's Katrina, tanking his poll ratings and adversely affecting Democrats on the ballot this November.

Meanwhile thousands in Africa continue to die. The only thing that seems clear in the US is that the word "Katrina" has become established political shorthand for toxic government incompetence, just as any noteworthy scandal gets a "-gate" suffix.

Hmmm. Ebola-gate. How has that not caught on yet? With 18 days to the elections, there's still time.

Someone call Peggy Noonan.