October 20, 2014

FRANK BRUNI: I’m beginning to think this Obama chap isn’t as competent as we were told.

WE have no clue at this point how far Ebola could spread in the United States — and no reason for panic.

But one dimension of the disease’s toll is clear. It’s ravaging Americans’ already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies.

Before President Obama’s election, we had Iraq, Katrina and the meltdown of banks supposedly under Washington’s watch. Since he came along to tidy things up, we’ve had the staggeringly messy rollout of Obamacare, the damnable negligence of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the baffling somnambulism of the Secret Service.

Now this. Although months of a raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sufficient warning and ample time to get ready for any cases here, it was caught flat-footed, as its director, Tom Frieden, is being forced bit by bit to acknowledge. Weeks ago he assured us: “We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country.” Over recent days he updated that assessment, saying that “in retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight,” federal officials could and should have done more at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

President Obama made his own assurances and then corrections. He said back in mid-September that “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.”

Well, we weren’t wholly prepared, and the event was never unlikely: This country is a potent magnet for travelers, with a proudly (and rightly) open posture toward the world.

Yeah, we might wind up rethinking that. Plus:

Rationally or not, this is one of those rare moments when Americans who typically tune out so much of what leaders say are paying rapt attention, and Obama’s style of communication hasn’t risen fully to the occasion. Even as he canceled campaign appearances and created a position — Ebola czar — that we were previously told wasn’t necessary, he spoke with that odd dispassion of his, that maddening distance.

About the ban, he said, “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily.” About the czar, he said that it might be good to have a person “to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward.” He’s talking theory and calligraphy while Americans are focused on blood, sweat and tears.

Ebola is his presidency in a petri dish. It’s an example already of his tendency to talk too loosely at the outset of things, so that his words come back to haunt him. There was the doctor you could keep under his health plan until, well, you couldn’t. There was the red line for Syria that he didn’t have to draw and later erased.

Yeah, it’s as if he’s totally in over his head or something.

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