WASHINGTON — President Obama surrounded himself at the White House Wednesday with American medical personnel back from stints treating Ebola patients in western Africa and took a thinly veiled swipe at the American politicians seeking to involuntarily quarantine them.
"A lot of people talk about American exceptionalism. I'm a firm believer in American exceptionalism. You know why I am? It's because of folks like this," Obama said. "It's because we don't run and hide when there's a problem. It's because we don't react to our fears, but instead we respond with common sense and skill and courage. That's the best of our history – not fear, not hysteria, not misinformation; we act clearly and firmly even when others are losing their heads. That's part of the reason why we're effective. That's part of the reason why people look to us."
For days, the White House has been battling a growing number of governors who have implemented 21-day quarantine detentions of anyone flying into U.S. airports from the site of the African Ebola outbreak. The most vocal of the group is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and possible 2016 presidential contender, though Democrats have also put the quarantines in place, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who weakened the quarantine order after White House outcry). On Wednesday, California public health officials announced the state will also implement a quarantine; the state's governor, Jerry Brown, is a Democrat.
The White House has declined to say if Christie and Obama have spoken about the quarantine order and on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to say if the administration's Ebola czar, Ron Klain, has spoken with Maine health officials, currently seeking to involuntarily quarantine nurse Kaci Hickox.
In his brief remarks at the White House, Obama had an argument to state officials calling for quarantines: They won't work, and they threaten to prevent more Americans from going to Africa to help end the Ebola outbreak at its source.
"We've got hundreds of Americans from across the country — nurses, doctors, public health workers, soldiers, engineers, mechanics — who are putting themselves on the front lines of this fight. They represent citizenship and patriotism and public service at its best. They make huge sacrifices to protect this country that we love," Obama said. "And when they come home, they deserve to be treated properly. They deserve to be treated like the heroes that they are."
The White House case against mandatory quarantines has been muddied somewhat by the Defense Department's plan to institute a 21-day quarantine for troops returning from service in Ebola-afflicted African nations. The president argued Wednesday that policies that don't promote more trips by civilians to treat Ebola in Africa will only prolong the outbreak.
"The truth is that until we stop this outbreak in West Africa, we may continue to see individual cases in America in the weeks and months ahead, because that's the nature of today's world. We can't hermetically seal ourselves off," Obama said. "The nature of international travel and movement means that the only way to assure that we are safe is to make sure that we have dealt with the disease where it is most acute. So yes, we are likely to see a possible case elsewhere outside of these countries, and that's true whether or not you adopt a travel ban, whether or not you adopt a quarantine, it's the nature of diseases. As long as Ebola exists in the world, no one can promise that there won't be any more cases in America or anyplace else."
Obama accused those calling for travel bans and mandatory quarantines of shirking America's responsibility to lead the fight against Ebola.
"When I hear people talking about American leadership and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated," he said. "I put those on notice who think that we should hide from these problems: that's not who we are, that's not who I am, that's not who these folks are. This is America, and we do things differently."