WHITE HOUSE —
President Barack Obama is working not only to stop the spread of Ebola in the United States, but to contain the political damage that fear of the disease could inflict on his Democratic Party.
Fears of Ebola have become a factor as Americans prepare to go to the polls next month in Congressional elections that could see Democrats losing control of the Senate.
One person has died of Ebola on U.S. soil, a Liberian visitor. Two nurses who came in contact with him are sick. The number is miniscule when compared to the more than 4,000 people who have died of the disease in West Africa.
The three cases have triggered a wave of criticism against the administration by some Americans, however, who accuse the leadership of not doing enough to protect them.
The president who has been criticized in the past for golfing and fundraising during major crises, recently cancelled some domestic trips and instead stayed at the White House to meet with members of his Ebola response team. After one of those meetings, the president invited cameras into the Oval Office and offered the American people words of reassurance.
“I understand that people are scared. But what I want to emphasize once again is that right now we’ve got one individual who came in with the disease.”
In his remarks, Obama sought to contain the political damage that could result from Americans’ anxiety over Ebola.
“It’s important for all of us to keep perspective in terms of how we handle this. We are taking this very seriously at the highest levels -- starting with me,” said the president.
Obama’s approval ratings have already suffered; polls last month showed many Americans are not happy with his handling of foreign policy issues including the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Political analysts say the Ebola issue could make Democrats vulnerable going into next month’s elections.
Julian Zelizer, a politics professor at Princeton University and fellow at the New America Foundation, speaking via Skype, says Ebola could end up being this year’s so-called “October Surprise,” a jargon term used to describe news that is deliberately released in time to influence the outcome of November elections.
“It is a surprise. It’s not a surprise that anyone constructed, but it is a surprise that the president needs to deal with and that the Democrats need to deal with," said Zelizer. "It’s creating a sense of crisis. It’s raising questions about government and that will all point to problems, I think, for the Democratic Party. So, I think, fairly or not fairly, it’s something that’s going to be part of the campaign now.”
Republicans have accused the Democratic administration of not taking adequate measures. They call for a travel ban, which the administration says would do more harm than good.
Democrats, in a series of campaign ads, have accused Republicans of undermining efforts to fight Ebola by supporting cuts to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Ebloa 'czar' named
Meanwhile, the president on Friday named a former White House official as Ebola "czar" to coordinate U.S. efforts to fight the virus. The White House said Ron Klain, a former aide to two vice presidents, will take the role.
Obama had mentioned the possibility of an Ebola czar on Thursday, when he authorized additional military forces to help with containment efforts in West Africa. He also authorized National Guard and reservist troops as part of the U.S. commitment to deploy 4,000 American soldiers to fight Ebola at its source in West Africa.
The president plans to resume fundraising activities in the coming days, which some see as an indication that he believes the uproar over Ebola could soon start to fade.
Analysts say Obama and his party are hoping the number of cases in the U.S. does not rise significantly before next month’s elections.