Post Politics: Obama's Address, Biden on Swine Flu, More

Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post National Web Editor and Producer
Thursday, April 30, 2009 11:00 AM

Discuss President Obama's televised address and the latest news about the White House and Congress with Garance Franke-Ruta, one of the editors of The Post's 44: The Obama Presidency blog.


Garance Franke-Ruta: Hello and good morning! Pleased to be chatting today.


Washington, D.C.: Vice President Biden this morning on NBC:

"I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation suggesting they ride the subway. "

Has he lost his mind? Last night President Obama says to stay calm and just wash your hands, and this morning the vice president says to avoid subways? The administration needs to get their act together on this immediately before they start a massive panic. Either we need to go into crisis mode and close businesses like Mexico, or stay calm as President Obama said. Very dangerous this morning.

Garance Franke-Ruta: Vice President Biden apparently answered the question as an individual, rather than as vice president of the United States. That was an error he will doubtless spend much of the rest of the day trying to correct. The advice the president gave last night was for people who are experiencing active flu-like symptoms to avoid mass transit and enclosed spaces where they could expose a crowd to whatever pathogen in making them sick -- not for perfectly healthy people to stay home and barricade the doors.

For those who didn't catch his remarks, Biden gave some advice sure to panic the transit sector this morning on "Today," saying:

"I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now...

"You're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway. So from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation.

"If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or a closed container, a closed car, a closed classroom, it's a different thing."

He's already sent out a message clarifying what he meant. But this is one of those instances where Joe being Joe is not quite what the moment requires.


Fairfax County, Va: What's your guess, will the Obama administration's motto (is that the right word?) become the New Foundation? I liked it during the Georgetown address when the president retold the parable of the house built upon sand and the house built upon the rock, and apparently that was the debut of this new phrase, which I heard again last night. One caveat: I would rather the slogan was "building our house upon a rock" but I guess that's too many words. "New foundation" isn't quite as striking or memorable as the house on a rock.

My alternative theory is that they already have their administration's signature phrase and they just don't realize it: No Drama. That one can cover a whole lot of ground and we in the public really really like it.

Garance Franke-Ruta: Good eye. I haven't seen the administration specifically pushing the "New Foundation" framework for its policies, but that does have a certain ring to it.


Anonymous: While it would have been impossible for Air Force One to have been the plane flying around the State of Liberty, since the plane is not Air Force One unless the President is on board, some news reports pointed out it was a back-up plane, not the plane regularly used by the President. Who would have to authorize the use of the back-up? Same as the main plane? White House military advisor high enough?

Garance Franke-Ruta: The White House Military Office director authorized the flight; his job is consequently in jeopardy.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I presume Vice President Biden was answering a question honestly and not according to policy, as I believe it was his personal recommendation that his family be cautious regarding the Swine/Mexican flu (maybe to be politically correct we should rename it the NAFTA Flu). As I understand it, the death rate from this flu has not, as of April 30, 2009, been that high. Yet, advising against taking airplanes and subways has to sending people into a panic. The first question people are asking is "does Biden know something more that we don't know?" So, let me ask: do you believe Biden knows something more that has yet to be disclosed, or do you think he was just answering honestly as a father and husband overly concerned about his family?

Garance Franke-Ruta: I believe Biden was being Biden, as they say. There has at this time been one reported death in the United States, though a larger number have fallen ill.


Press Conference: I was glad to see the president on TV last night. He's been so unwilling to appear in public that I was worried about him.

Garance Franke-Ruta: LOL.


Rolla, Mo.: Boy, that was a boring press conference, or so I was told by several talking heads afterwords. What exactly is the expectation, that Obama will do a dance, or maybe throw out some stupid nicknames when calling on reporters?

Garance Franke-Ruta: I've been following Obama since 2004 and I continue to be surprised that people, on the basis of some of his more soaring speech excerpts, expect him to be continually exciting. Most of the time he is like this, a discusser of policy rather than an inspirer of people. So while there were few sparks last night, he did make a clear statement that he still believes waterboarding is torture, advancing our understanding of his thinking on this critical issue. I don't imagine that answer -- that torture was a "mistake" (as opposed to, say, a crime) -- will satisfy many observers looking for an even firmer statement from him, however.


Obama and Torture: I was really disappointed last night in how Obama is fudging his way around the torture issue. As an excellent op-ed this week in The Post from a former prosecutor at the Hague against Milosevic noted that the chain of command issues is exactly how/why we were able to prosecute Milosevic. What is wrong for calling individuals to account for crimes they (may) have committed? Why We Must Prosecute

Garance Franke-Ruta: Case in point. The president appears to have decided to defer on this issue to the Justice Department.


Washington, DC: As a follow-up to the Air Force One fly-by incident, one of your co-workers in a live Q&A said that he "might be wrong" but he thought that Louis Caldera, who had authorized the photo op, was a Bush appointee and carry-over (I guess this person thinks that Obama appointees are flawless). Well, he was wrong, and the press release so announcing Obama's appointment of him is on

More to the point, I am disturbed that Obama or his senior aides were not made aware of the fly-by. This seems to a significant breakdown in communication in the White House staff. Another breakdown in communications appears to have occured when Biden cautioned people about riding the subway. Is Biden not aware that almost half the riders on the Metro work for the federal government?

What is going on in the White House, and why isn't this being highlighted more by the press?

Garance Franke-Ruta: I'm not confident better internal White House communication would have led Biden to answer differently.


Doggone, IT: Was it just me or did our President's language take a precipitous dive into the realm of Palinese at the end of his news conference last night? "Doggone its" were flyin', "g"s were droppin', things were "hummin' ", and I think my head would have exploded if he'd dropped a "you betcha' " bomb. And it also seemed to me that he could barely contain his laughter.

Presidential theater at it's finest!

Garance Franke-Ruta: Obama actually does that a lot in his speeches and presentations, and you're right, mainly toward the middle or end, once he's warmed up. It not Palinese, it's just politics for "friendly American" -- Edwards (when he was in public life) and Clinton (Bill) and many, many Republicans do the same.


Boston: AS political junkies--and anyone who spends their lunch hours on these chats is either a junkie or certifiable--why should anyone complain about the President doing too many news conferences. I love them. And I love them regardless of who is President. I've got to say the White House press corps covering Obama is far better than those covering Bush. Really appreciated Mark Knoller following-up on Tapper...that sort of stuff disappeared during the last administration.

Garance Franke-Ruta: I'm sure they'll be pleased to hear you think so. I also enjoyed the questions at last night's forum.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Seems to me that in the case of the torture memos, and in the case of the state secrets issue, that Obama is trying to arrange things so that the systems meant to be in place to address situations like this have a chance to proceed with corrective action, while keeping executive branch fingerprints, and accusations of partisan activity, to a minimum. This has started in regard to the state secrets issue, with the Jeppesen case being reinstated this week.

I also believe that, in time, we will see the Justice Department act on the torture memos.

Patience is more than a virtue in these instances, it's an absolute necessity.

Garance Franke-Ruta: Thanks for your perspective. A lot of people are asking about this today.


New York, NY: Hi, Garance. The Post and other leading "news" publications continue to omit the basic unassailable facts that a) "waterboarding is torture" and b) "torture is illegal." Don't your editors understand that your "news" paper is not only denying its readers the necessary information to understand the issue, but this denial -- and continued use of the euphemistic "harsh interrogation tactics" -- also leads directly to accusations of bias from people like me. How do you feel about this criticism? Warranted?

Garance Franke-Ruta: I think you will see that the Post opinion pages and blogs talk bout torture while the news stories involving specific individuals treat the situation with the same specificity that attends all news stories involving potential criminal acts.


am I missing something?: Honestly, I'm not being sarcastic. Don't hundreds if not thousands of people die from the flu every year? Those with compromised immune systems, the elderly and the very young? With the exception of the Mexican child that died in the U.S. yesterday, haven't all the cases been mild? I just don't understand the panic?

Garance Franke-Ruta: New and unknown diseases often cause panics due to the uncertainty that attends them more than the odds that many people will die.


Washington, DC: In Biden's defense, he was asked what he would tell his family. It was the Today Show, in my opinion, who stoked the fire by bringing it up in the segment with Chuck Todd immediately after his remarks, in Ann Curry's news segments, in "Dr Nancy's" swine flu Q & A and in the interview with Anthony Falchi(sp?) Matt Lauer prefacing the question with "this isn't a gotcha but..." told me all I needed to know.

Garance Franke-Ruta: Yes, there ever really a moment when a person in so public a position can give a purely personal answer without thought to the public implications of his statements? I think if you look at Obama's answer to the NYT's question last night, in which he took a question about enchantment and turned it into a chance to talk about his support for America's troops, is the more standard sort of maneuver.


Minneapolis: I'm a fan of Obama and think he's doing a fine job, but I was a little disappointed that he was not more emphatic about whether the Bush administration was guilty of torture..."mistake" was the word I think he used. He seemed to take great pains to avoid criticizing the past administration, praising their efforts with the flu crisis. What did you think?

Garance Franke-Ruta: I think it's clear than in office he has been more hesitant to speak as plainly as he did while on the campaign trail about his opinions. You see this also in his decision to avoid the word "genocide" in reference to the slaughter of Armenians in 1915 -- something he said was a fact while on the trail.


To Missing Something: According to the CDC, 36,000 Americans die from flu strains every year. Given that, the panic being stirred over the death of a single visitor to the US, and the small number of people infected with this strain, does seem a tad ridiculous.

Not as ridiculous as the Israeli official saying it should be called "Mexican Flu" because pigs aren't kosher, but ridiculous all the same.

Garance Franke-Ruta: My favorite name for the disease right now is "Bacon Flu." It was started by some folks on Twitter who were pushing back against the panic with humor.


Wokingham UK: A few weeks ago there seemed to be a small spate of articles arguing that Obama's agenda for change - the New Foundation now, apparently - was domestic only and that his foreign policy would change from that of Bush only cosmetically. Is that view still plausible?

Garance Franke-Ruta: I think it's clear that his foreign policy, with its greater emphasis on diplomacy and good relations, is also different. I noticed that particularly around the Summit of the Americas, that suddenly because they were no longer being treated as grave threats, certain foreign leaders suddenly seemed diminished.


Large numbers in US are ill?: Every year thousands of people die from influenza in this country. Front page of WaPo indicates 91 cases so far confirmed in US. Numbers do not reflect the problem. It's that we don't have a vaccine, and probably won't next season either.

Garance Franke-Ruta: It can take 4 to 6 months to come up with a vaccine against this strain of flu, so we're on our own with regard to it for the time being.


Just curious: Do your friends and family call you Garance? Do you speak French and Spanish?

Garance Franke-Ruta: They do. In college, some folks called me "G" and when I was blogging more, "GFR." But for the most part, the name I have is the name I have.


Garance Franke-Ruta: Thanks all, for your questions. Been a pleasure.


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