Another 'Test' for Obama

By Dan Froomkin
1:21 PM ET, 04/28/2009

If you think all the 100-days judgments are premature, get a load of the pundits likening the swine flu outbreak to Hurricane Katrina in terms of its potential to be a test of President Obama's mettle.

I thought his mettle was being tested already. And although the media hysteria is undeniable, it's way too early to say how big a challenge swine flu will really present. (And for the record, I did call Katrina right away.)

Right now, the top priority is keeping everyone calm -- something that plays to Obama's strengths. But it's always possible that things could go pear-shaped in a hurry.

Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu write for The Washington Post: "As they confront the growing swine flu crisis, President Obama's administration is attempting to implement a never-before-tested pandemic response plan while dozens of key public health and emergency response jobs in the administration remain vacant....

"In some ways, such a scenario would combine the test posed by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which occurred eight months into the administration of former president George W. Bush at a time when many key Justice Department and intelligence positions were vacant, and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, which struck just one year after a national response plan was overhauled."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "While health officials scramble to keep up with the fast-moving virus, it is deeply disquieting that the Obama administration has few of its top health officials in place."

Craig Crawford, blogging for CQ, recalls the last time swine flu became a political issue: "Gerald Ford's decision to inoculate every person in the country (including himself) resulted in a political debacle that contributed to a reputation for incompetence that scuttled his 1976 election bid. The vaccination program was plagued by delays and became a public relations nightmare as Ford was accused, perhaps unfairly, of coddling drug companies aiming to profit from the scare. By the time the program was canceled only about 24% of the population was inoculated - and the president ended up looking foolish."

Meanwhile, here's what's actually happening. Robert Pear and Gardiner Harris write in the New York Times: "The Obama administration dispatched high-level officials from several agencies Monday to allay concerns about swine flu and to demonstrate that it was fully prepared to confront the outbreak even as the president said there was 'not a cause for alarm.'...

"As the administration responds to its first domestic emergency, it is building on concrete preparations made during the tenure of President George W. Bush that have won praise from public health experts. But its actions are also informed by what Mr. Bush learned in his response to Hurricane Katrina: that political management of a crisis, and of public expectations, can be as important as the immediate response....

"[B]ehind the scenes at the White House, aides said the president was directing his administration to be ready in case an alarm needed to be sounded. A full report on the swine flu was added to Mr. Obama's daily intelligence briefing, with updates given to him throughout the day.

"Aides said they were mindful that how the president conducted himself in this period, both substantively and stylistically, would be long remembered. But they adamantly rejected the idea that this situation was at all comparable to that of the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005."

Yash Gupta writes in The Washington Post's "On Leadership" forum that "there's tremendous urgency for leaders today to respond when faced with this kind of situation.

"The first job for a leader at a time such as this, especially a head of government, is to communicate. He must assure people that things are under control, and he can achieve this by quickly and clearly outlining several important pieces of information...

"A leader has to strike the perfect balance in tone - cautious but not alarmist. When should he begin to issue precautions to the public? I think early in the process. Otherwise, imagine the anger and resentment if the disease were to spread and people felt they hadn't been warned. In the case of a potential pandemic, a lack of information could be literally fatal."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "The swine flu outbreak offers an unexpected political challenge for President Obama, and a readiness test for the nation's public health system. So far, Obama is doing what he can to send the right message to the public: Don't panic over the swine flu threat, but don't ignore it either."

And Chris Cillizza writes for The Washington Post that the swine flu episode also "offers Obama and his senior team the chance to prove that even amid an economic recession, two foreign wars and a debate over whether to prosecute CIA officials involved in harsh interrogation practices, he (and they) can handle a worldwide heath crisis.

"'I don't think it hurts at all,' said Democratic consultant Phil Singer of the swine flu. 'Instead of being a retrospective on the last 100 days, the President can use the milestone to demonstrate his leadership skills in real time.'"

Yesterday, the White House press corps was obsessed with the president's medical, not political, exposure. As Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post, "the White House struggled Monday to convince the world -- and in particular the media -- that the president had not been infected.

"Speculation had exploded after foreign newspapers reported that the president's tour guide at a Mexico City museum on April 16 had died from flulike symptoms the next day. (He did die -- but not of swine flu, it turns out, or on April 17.)

"In his daily briefing to reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs became exasperated after saying over and over again that Obama was not infected, not even sick."

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