Targeting Obama, Trump set a standard that came back to haunt him

Trump said Obama's response to H1N1 was a "debacle" and a "disaster" because 17,000 Americans died. That standard has come back to haunt him.
Image: President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump at the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016.
President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump at the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016.Win McNamee / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

As is his wont, Donald Trump has spent weeks making the case that his response to the coronavirus pandemic is great -- at least when compared to Barack Obama's response to H1N1 in 2009. In fact, the incumbent president has been quite aggressive on the talking point, throwing around words like "debacle" and "disaster" to describe his predecessor's record.

To bolster the point, Trump has pointed to a specific statistic, which he seems to believe drives the larger point home. This was his pitch during a White House press briefing a week ago today:

"Take a look at the swine flu. Right? That's H1N1. Take a look at that. And it's not the other way around, by the way. It's H1N1. Take a look -- you know what I mean by that. Take a look at the swine flu. It was a disaster; 17,000 people died. The other administra- they didn't even know -- it was like they didn't even know it was here."

A day later, the Republican repeated the statistic on Twitter, labeling the federal response to H1N1 a "debacle" because "17,000 people died."

There's a whole lot wrong with Trump's pitch, but just focus on three of most glaring problems. First, the idea that Obama administration officials acted as if "they didn't even know" the threat was here is ridiculous. As CNN's Daniel Dale explained, in April 2009, two weeks after the first case of H1N1 was confirmed in the United States, the Democratic administration declared a public-health emergency. Two days later, Obama and his team both made a congressional funding request and approved a CDC test -- which began distribution just five days after the then-president's initial declaration. By October 2009, a vaccine was ready for the public.

The New York Times' Nick Kristof described the Obama administration's handling of H1N1 as "a model" for others to follow: "Prompt response, quick development of a vaccine and then messaging for people to get vaccinated."

While Trump recently urged Americans to see Obama's response to H1N1 as "a very big failure," polling from 2009 found that a majority of the public approved of the Democratic administration's handling of the matter, which is probably why Republicans, desperate to undermine support for the Obama White House, never saw this as an area of vulnerability for the Democrat. (Remember all the attack ads from the era blasting Obama's H1N1 response? Neither do I.)

Second, Trump is convinced that 17,000 Americans were killed by H1N1, but there's reason for some caution on the figure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the virus was responsible for 12,469 deaths in the United States across all of 2009.

And third, even if one is inclined to give the Republican the benefit of the doubt about the death toll from H1N1, if 17,000 American deaths is proof of a "debacle," a "disaster," and a "very big failure," what exactly are the words Trump would use to describe a pandemic that has killed 22,000 Americans -- and counting -- over a much shorter period of time?