By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It's not often that a White House official gets mocked on both Saturday Night Live and a major daily newspaper before he makes his first public appearance.
But Ron Klain's low-profile first week as President Barack Obama's behind-the-scenes Ebola "czar" has become another attack point for a White House struggling to show it's on top of the crisis.
Since starting last Wednesday, Klain has been seen only once, in a photo op on his first day, leaving health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health - and Obama himself - to be the public "face" of the response.
The White House has declined to give details about his activities, especially what role he played as governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey undermined the White House's attempt to keep the nation calm about the risk posed by healthcare workers returning from Ebola-stricken West Africa.
"I recognize that all of you have not had a chance to see him and talk to him every day, but the president certainly has," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday about Klein.
Klain's lack of a public profile has fueled attacks by conservative critics who last week seized upon his lack of medical expertise. Klain, 53, is a lawyer and political insider who previously served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore and left the White House in 2011 to help AOL co-founder Steve Case oversee his holdings.
The White House has tried to temper expectations that Klain will emerge as a regular voice on Ebola. He might do the occasional briefing or interview, "but that is pretty low on his to-do list," Earnest said.
Instead, Klain has briefed Obama on developments on six of seven days since he began work, Earnest said.
He has talked to some state officials, but not others.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe spoke to Klain on Monday to tell him how the state was monitoring people returning from West Africa, a spokesman said.
But the Texas Department of State Health Services hasn't had direct contact with Klain, a spokeswoman there said.
Florida health officials have not been contacted by Klain either, said Nathan Dunn, a spokesman for the state agency collaborative dealing with Ebola preparations.
A 'RAISED TEMPO'
Others have defended the pick and Klain's seven-day track record, saying the job is a behind-the-scenes one that requires a deft political touch to navigate state, federal and military officials.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats have seen a "raised tempo" in communications from the White House and other federal officials since Klain took the reins, said Diana DeGette, a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce committee.
Klain talked to New York officials when Dr. Craig Spencer was diagnosed with Ebola, but the White House will not say what Klain did in the first big public test of his coordination prowess - the Friday night decision by Cuomo and Christie to quarantine doctors and nurses returning from Ebola front lines.
The measures came ahead of and went far beyond what the federal government was considering, and raised questions about whose policies were better.
The situation "accentuates the need" for Klain's role, said Mike Feldman, who worked with Klain in the Clinton White House, and describes him as "one of those guys who can go deep pretty quickly" on policy and is deeply trusted by Obama and his team.
"Give him a couple of days to get grounded and get his feet wet. This is one of those situations that's rapidly unfolding," Feldman said.
COHERENT EXPLANATION NEEDED
People who have seen Klain work on thorny government issues in the past say his talents work best behind the scenes, and he leaves the cameras to other players.
"He wasn't often the face of communications or even policy, but he was always somebody who was behind the scenes, strategizing on both," said Jay Carney, who worked with Klain in Biden's office.
Carney described him as an "unflappable" character who was adept at dealing with governors and lawmakers while addressing legal, political and communication problems during the massive 2009 economic stimulus package that invested $787 billion in projects around the country.
"He was extremely reassuring in this period when we coming in (to office), and the world was falling apart economically, there were a lot of tough fights," Carney said in an interview.
It's highly unlikely Klain will play a similar role to Admiral Thad Allen, who Obama put in charge of the government response to plugging the gushing BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and became the public face of that disaster.
In an interview, Allen, who does not know Klain, said "one size doesn't fit all" when leading during a complex crisis. But he said it can help, at some point, to have a point person who can explain what the government is doing.
"The country is looking for kind of a coherent explanation about how that comes together," Allen said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, David Morgan, Ian Simpson, Jon Herskovitz, Letitia Stein; Editing by Karey Van Hall and John Pickering)