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Another 'Test' for Obama

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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  April 28, 2009; 1:21 PM ET
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True that Obama is a little slow in getting top health officials in place, however I believe that the Republicans are blocking some that have been proposed (Sebelius). Also, other than Krugman's blog, I have not seen too much mention of the Republicans removing money from the stimulus package that was meant to help to fight a pandemic such as is possible, though not assured, with the current swine flu outbreak.

Posted by: arto7 | April 28, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

More Americans will die this afternoon in car accidents than have died since the beginning of this outbreak.

As with the bird flu before this, and monkey pox before that, this will end up being an expensive episode of mass hysteria. It won't happen without the gleeful assistance of the media, of course, as it seems to only exist these days to spread political misinformation and to create and inflate public panic.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | April 28, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

And whoever has the gall to even attempt to compare this with Katrina should be forced to live on a roof in 95 degree heat with 90% humidity for 3 straight days. Survivors win a free swine flu infection.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | April 28, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Your risk factor is fairly low.

Serious advice here: the best thing you can do is literally wash your hands with hot water and cheap soap (NOT anti-bacterial, not purel). Other than using a kleenex and/or sleeve when sneezing, everything else really won't make a difference.

Posted by: WillSeattle | April 28, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I would add that everyone should try and get a good night's sleep, too. You don't want your immune system at less than its best.

As far as the political aspects, I think Obama is fine and the media (i.e., tv) is becoming more and more a joke. They just can't be sober and calm. Hysteria and misinformation is all they are about anymore.

Posted by: shetuck | April 28, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

The reason we do not have a Sec of HHS is because Republicans routinely get far more worked up over a collection of embryos than over the health of real people.

Posted by: TexasJim | April 28, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Furthermore, any media comparison of the swine flu to Katrina will of course ignore how Cheney and Bush systematically dismantled FEMA in the years before the hurricane strike. They literally stripped the defenses.

Posted by: whizbang9a | April 28, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Thank heavens this didn't happen during the Bush Administration. They'd have suspended all civil liberties, conducted mass arrests of all "liberals" and started waterboarding flu victims to investigate possible links to WMD programs...

Posted by: Common_Sense_Not_Common | April 28, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

It is unconsiousable that Republican Senators are blocking approval of Obama's Cabinet members some 100 days into his administration! There is NO justification for these stupid actions other than petty politicing for their narrow-minded prejudices and hypocrisy! Such obstructionism should be on the front pages of every paper, every cable news station, and on every voters lips as they select the replacements for these traitors!

Posted by: Chaotician | April 28, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse


Why is this a "test" for Obama? What can the administration do that the CDC and WHO can't?

Why is it important to keep people calm? Wouldn't keeping people informed be better?

Isn't there more than one capable person at the White House? You know, someone to cover Iraq/AStan, financial crisis, etc. Or does all the crap go through one filter? If so, that might be the problem.

PS- the CDC should distribute TamaFLU to citizens and Valium to the PRESS.

Posted by: mdsinc | April 28, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

At the very least, I'm relieved that we don't have to worry about the "Great One" during this terrible outbreak of deadly swine flu. His butt has been kissed by every reporter around so he should be pretty well sterile for another 100 days.

Posted by: GordonShumway | April 28, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

GordieScumway. Be careful when you use your smartass sarcasm to provide an appropriate context. The "Great One" is what Sean Hannity calls that monumental a$%hole Mark Levine. Also the real "Great One" was Jackie Gleason. Why are rightwingers so f%@#ing stupid?

Posted by: mickster1 | April 28, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

mickster--don't forget Gretzky.

Posted by: whizbang9a | April 28, 2009 11:07 PM | Report abuse

I live in Florida -- and in a house trailer at that -- so hurricanes are a very real threat to me. Swine flu? As near as I can tell, it has led mostly to an epidemic of posts on journalists' email lists about using Twitter to update everyone on the latest scare: "Mexican child has sniffle, WHO convenes meeting," seems to be the gist of the actual news.

And while a second round of much more potent flu a few months down the road is historically possible, even probable, we seem to have fairly good prophylactic measures in place, and better drugs to combat it than we did in the 1918 flu epidemic.

So I am not staying up night worrying about swine flu. I would just as soon wash my hands of the whole matter -- with all-natural, very strong soap (just in case).

Posted by: roblimo | April 29, 2009 6:32 AM | Report abuse

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