So even ridiculous comparisons get play from the president if they do one of two things: make him look better or his opponents look worse. Or, as he hopes in the case of his focus on the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, both.
There’s very little comparison between the influenza virus that emerged that year and the current coronavirus pandemic except that in both cases, a new virus emerged, rendering useless existing defense mechanisms. The point of contrasts on which Trump focuses are that it spread broadly within the United States and that it happened during the administration of Barack Obama — and his vice president, Joe Biden, against whom Trump almost certainly will face off in November’s general election.
Since the emergence of the coronavirus in the United States, Trump has tried to position his response to the current situation as markedly better than the Obama-Biden response. To, in other words, make himself look good and Biden look bad.
But it’s a terrible comparison, on essentially every metric that Trump has used, including the one he used Tuesday morning.
The coronavirus has been far deadlier in the United States than the H1N1 virus was. As the coronavirus began to spread widely in the United States, Trump on multiple occasions compared its toll to that from 2009. On April 17, Trump alleged that “17,000 people died unnecessarily and through incompetence” on the part of Biden (who, contrary to Trump’s claim, wasn’t the administration point person on the pandemic).
By that point, nearly twice as many Americans had already died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
This deadliness is largely a function of the effects of the virus itself. Even early in the outbreak in the United States, it was obvious that covid-19 was far more dangerous than the H1N1 virus.
By early April, though, it was also obvious that the coronavirus was spreading far faster than the H1N1 virus had.
Trump’s “17,000 deaths” figure isn’t really accurate, independent of everything else. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiles estimates of the actual spread and toll of a disease given that it cannot track every single case in real-time — particularly for illnesses in which fewer people become seriously ill. The CDC estimates that about 12,500 people died of H1N1 in the first year after it emerged (although the figure could be as low as 9,000 or as high as 18,000), with more than 274,000 people hospitalized. Nearly 61 million people contracted the virus, but since it was so much less dangerous, that metric doesn’t mean much. There was no broad lockdown of the economy because contracting the virus only rarely meant serious effects. It was, in fact, less dangerous than nearly any recent flu season.
Again, those figures are estimates. The graphs above compare observed cases and deaths, which is the data that we have for the coronavirus at the moment. At the moment, there have been more than 98,000 observed deaths, nearly six times the number Trump cited and eight times the CDC’s final estimated death toll from H1N1. The number of observed deaths from covid-19 is almost certainly lower than the actual toll.
While the number of infections in the United States is probably still below the final H1N1 estimate, the number of hospitalizations and deaths is higher. Again: This is a function of the virus, as Ron Klain, then Biden’s chief of staff, noted last year.
“It had nothing to do with us doing anything right,” he said. “It just had to do with luck. If anyone thinks that this can’t happen again, they don’t have to go back to 1918″ — the Spanish flu pandemic — “they just have to go back to 2009, 2010 and imagine a virus with a different lethality, and you can just do the math on that.”
Nonetheless, this is not a favorable comparison for Trump.
The polling doesn’t reflect well on Trump, either. One of the reliable characteristics of Trump’s presentation of information is that it takes a lot to dislodge his own perceptions.
In February, Gallup reported that its polling found broad confidence in the government to handle the coronavirus pandemic. Seventy-seven percent of respondents indicated that they had at least some confidence in the federal government to handle the virus. By comparison, only two-thirds said they had similar confidence when Gallup averaged polls from 2009.
That February poll, though, came before there was confirmed uncontrolled spread of the virus in the United States. It came before the first reported death from covid-19 in this country. In other words, it was forward-looking, not an evaluation of how Trump’s administration performed.
Notice that the poll numbers weren’t “terrible,” as Trump alleged. That 67 percent was better than the perceptions of other recent U.S. outbreaks, including Zika in 2016-2017, Ebola in 2014 and an avian flu outbreak in 2005.
More importantly, polling on how the government has handled the coronavirus no longer sits at 77 percent confidence. By mid-March, only 61 percent indicated confidence in the federal government's handling of the pandemic. Late-April polling from Gallup found that only 50 percent of Americans — most of them Republicans — approved of Trump's handling of the virus.
The first H1N1 case in the United States came on April 15, 2009. Three months later, Obama’s approval rating was 59 percent in Gallup’s polling. The first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States came on Jan. 21 of this year. Three months later, Trump’s approval was at 49 percent.
None of this matters for Trump, of course. His point isn’t that the 2009 and 2020 pandemics are comparable. It’s instead that he hopes people will compare his efforts to Biden’s and, relying on partisan cues, determine that the Obama-Biden effort in 2009 was somehow demonstrably worse than the one that has unfolded over the past four months. One may judge the current effort on its own merits, but even the comparisons to which Trump points do not actually prove his point.
But, again, he doesn’t need them to. He just needs to point to them and let his supporters do the rest of the work.