With the Ebola crisis seemingly in hand, Ron Klain, the veteran political operative the White House plucked from a venture capital gig to coordinate the government’s response, is planning a late-winter return to the private sector.
Klain has committed to former AOL chief Steve Case that by March 1, he’ll be back on the job as president of Case Holdings and general counsel for Case’s venture firm Revolution LLC, Case tells Fortune. An administration official confirmed the plan.
“He has no intention of staying on in any other capacity here at the White House,” the administration official said. “Ron will do the job for which he was appointed and return to Revolution.”
Klain’s role as the White House’s “Ebola czar” was always meant to be temporary. He took a leave of absence from Revolution in late October to join the administration as a special government employee — a technical designation for short-termers that stipulates they’ll stay on the job no longer than 130 days. But there has been active speculation, fueled by a POLITICO report, that Klain would stay on in the White House in another role, potentially succeeding John Podesta as Counselor to the President, if Podesta quits to run a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Contrary to the chatter, Case said the expiration date on Klain’s public service has been well understood within the White House. Talks to bring Klain aboard proceeded rapidly — Case said they started two days before the White House announced the appointment on Oct. 17 — and that Klain “was not eager to take on this assignment but felt it was an important thing to do. He agreed to do it with the understanding that it would be for a limited period of time.”
A behind-the-scenes operator by temperament, Klain found himself thrust into a vortex of crisis-driven fears and politically motivated recriminations upon being named to tackle the challenge. Two weeks out from the midterm elections, the White House looked badly off-balance. The outbreak was defying official assurances the situation was under control — two nurses treating a Liberian man in Dallas contracted the disease, revealing containment protocols porous as a chain-link fence. Congressional calls for a travel ban piled up as cable news whipped public concern toward panic.
Klain’s appointment did little to calm nerves. Republicans leapt on the selection of a political hand — Klain served as chief of staff to then-Vice President Al Gore and worked for Vice President Joe Biden coordinating the launch of the 2009 stimulus package — as a signal the White House was treating the Ebola threat as a political headache. Even Saturday Night Live took up the GOP line, lampooning Klain’s lack of healthcare expertise.
Seven weeks on, however, the disease has all but fallen off the radar. A surgeon who contracted Ebola in his native Sierra Leone died in a Nebraska hospital on Nov. 17, bringing the total U.S. death to two, and no new cases have surfaced since. The White House touted the progress under Klain in a Monday memo, noting the 32 new designated treatment facilities, 29 labs newly equipped to test for the disease, an enhanced screening system for travelers from abroad and the completion of the first phase of clinical trials for a vaccine. While it’s of course tough to know how much of that would have been achieved without Klain’s involvement, the administration official said he gets credit for “building the airplane mid-flight. You really need someone who’s at the bellybutton of this, who can call upon all of the resources of the United States government. That person has to sit at the White House, where Ron, as he currently does, has ready access to the President and all of his senior-most advisors, and is able to ensure the response is adequately resourced and synchronized both at home and overseas.”
Klain still has plenty to do. At the moment, his work is focused on securing Congressional support for Obama’s $6.2 billion request to fund a range of emergency response measures, even though any sense of emergency has palpably drained away. The President himself traveled to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. on Tuesday to press the case, but the ask is tangled in a broader budget dispute and Congressional Republicans are unlikely to meet it in full.
That said, the best testimonial to the low-key Klain’s performance may be his success in disappearing back behind the curtain. Fortune asked four of the most outspoken Congressional Republican critics of his appointment to weigh in on how he’s done so far. All declined to comment. “He’s perfectly fine not getting credit,” says Case. “In fact, he prefers it.”