Obama Should Appoint a Surgeon General Right Now

Congress is in recess. The American public is freaking out about Ebola. Sen. John McCain is leading a growing cadre of Republicans calling for an "Ebola czar."

So what's wrong with this picture? CBS News got it right when it wrote, "As calls for Ebola 'czar' grow, where's the surgeon general?"

The answer is that this position has been vacant for many months because the Republican Congress once again has blocked a significant presidential appointment. Although he gave other reasons, Republican Sen. Rand Paul blocked the president's proposed appointment of Dr. Vivek Murthy in February because the nominee offended the gun lobby. (Imagine if, like former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the president's nominee had taken on cigarettes, too!)

Ebola, meanwhile, has the potential in this country to develop into a full-blown crisis. It's already causing fear, misunderstanding and confusion among millions of Americans. Doesn't the president have the right to make a recess appointment of a new surgeon general to protect the American public? Would voters be incensed if the GOP made a flap about such an appointment? I rather doubt it. So why doesn't the president act, and on his terms, not John McCain's?

There's no question that the global fight against Ebola needs better coordination, and the handling of a few cases in this country has already raised troubling questions. We all know already that Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian who contracted and then died of Ebola, was turned away from Dallas Presbyterian Hospital before he was admitted. Today we learn that the nurse there who is the first person known to contract the disease on U.S. soil wasn't even among the 48 people monitored daily, though she'd been in contact with Duncan multiple times. What we don't know is why.

Which brings us back to that CBS story. Despite the headline, the network hedges its bets. Sure, the story says, the surgeon general has the power of the "bully pulpit." He could be a good spokesperson. But then it quotes Michael Leavitt, who served as George W. Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

He suggests that "while America's surgeon general has a 'strong brand,'" the reality is that the office has "very little responsibility in the context of comprehensive emergency management."

Hold it right there. It strikes me that someone with a "strong brand" is exactly what the public needs right now. Americans need reassurance that a coordinated plan is in place to stop the disease's spread when the inevitable odd case arrives on our shores. They need timely information to counteract rumor; if our government can manage daily press conferences during wars overseas, why can't we do the same during an incipient crisis at home? And Americans need to know that someone with authority is drawing information from disparate agencies tracking and countering Ebola within our borders.

Yes, the president could seek the myth of bipartisan cooperation and capitulate to McCain's call. But why should he? Why should he add a nonexistent position of authority when an important one exists, unfilled, in this country's executive structure? Why should he create a new bureaucracy (and here I thought it was the Republicans who decried bureaucracy) when the position of the "Nation's Doctor" is unfilled?

The president should use emergency powers now to appoint a surgeon general. Let the GOP squawk and call him a tyrant. In this case, I believe Republicans would be seen as the oppositionists they so frequently are. And the Nation's Doctor could settle into his new job by, among other things, giving the American public clear, daily updates on Ebola, something that just might soothe a lot of jangled nerves.