At Sunday afternoon’s White House press briefing on the administration’s efforts to combat and control a potential swine flu outbreak, press secretary Robert Gibbs was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, deputy national security adviser John Brennan, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acting director Dr. Richard Besser.
Noticeably absent on stage was a fully confirmed federal health care official: There was no health and human services secretary (Kathleen Sebelius could be confirmed as early as tomorrow), no surgeon general (no new candidate has emerged since Dr. Sanjay Gupta dropped out) and no fully confirmed director of CDC (though Besser deftly handled a series of morning show interviews earlier today).
“There is a team in place,” Gibbs insisted when asked Sunday about the absence of fully confirmed health officials. “I think this notion somehow that if there’s not currently a secretary, that there’s not the function that needs to take place in order to prepare for this either this or any other situation is just simply not the case,” he added.
A review of The Washington Post’s Head Count appointee tracking project finds that Obama has tapped five people for HHS jobs including Sebelius, but still needs to fill 15 other positions. When finally confirmed, they will hire staff to fill out other key roles across the federal health policy system.
Some observers agree that Even without top leadership in place, HHS and the other federal agencies tasked with tracking swine flu employ thousands of experienced individuals fully capable of handling the potential crisis.
“In terms of the immediate response, we have plenty of career people in place that can step and do exactly what they should do in this situation,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, a group focused on eliminating epidemics. The administration was smart to pick Besser as CDC acting director, Levi notes, since Besser used to run the agency’s terrorism preparedness and emergency response unit. He’s uniquely qualified to lead during this impending crisis, Levi added.
But ask any rank-and-file federal employee and they’ll likely say that while an agency can operate without political appointees, they need those leaders to clearly define the mission, settle disagreements, coordinate efforts with other agencies and deliver a clear message to the public. In this case especially, the public message will matter. For his part, President Obama said earlier today that he’s getting regular updates from the CDC and Napolitano.
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