April 29, 2009


Will Obama Stumble Like Ford? (Julian Zelizer, 4/29/09, Daily Beast)

President Ford confronted an outbreak of the swine flu in January and February of 1976. Cases of the flu were reported at the Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey. Although there was no evidence the flu was spreading, the Centers for Disease Control warned of an outbreak on February 14. Congress allocated funds for a vaccine one month later. Democrats were suspicious of political motivations behind the policy in an election year. Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-WA) quipped that when Americans went for their shots in the fall, “they might have ‘em vote at the same time.”

President Ford and his advisers mistakenly viewed the crisis through the comparison to the influenza outbreak of 1918 and 1919, which killed millions of people around the globe, as Ernest May and Richard Neustadt recounted in their classic book on the importance of history in policymaking, Thinking in Time. Ford, who was also gearing up for a tough primary battle against Ronald Reagan and a tough general election in the fall, did not want to give opponents fodder that would enable them to accuse him of being an ineffective leader. The president requested that Congress allocate funds to develop a vaccine. Congress passed the legislation, with $135 million for the program, and Ford signed it into law in April.

Although there was still no strong evidence of an outbreak, in the summer of 1976 Congress agreed to grant the drug companies legal immunity as they distributed a vaccine. The policy had already been riddled with problems. One of the major pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine produced the wrong kind, creating a four- to six-week delay. When Congress changed its mind about granting legal immunity, Ford publicly warned that Americans would blame Congress if an outbreak occurred. Congress then passed the National Influenza Immunization Program in August.

The problem was that when the vaccines started being given in October, there were reports that a few senior citizens had died as a result and others suffered a form of paralysis. More news stories emerged about the dangers of the vaccine as well as how the news of an outbreak had been exaggerated. Later, however, reports said the vaccines had not caused the deaths. The White House released a picture for Ford receiving the vaccine to boost public confidence.

The problems with the response to the flu reports compounded the negative image that many had of Ford as an ineffective and often stumbling president—exactly the image he hoped to counteract when he first responded to the possible threat. In the swine-flu crisis, Ford’s attempt to appear a strong leader only made him seem more ineffective than ever.

This is a pretty easy situation to milk for political gain: pretend to be moving Heaven and Earth to fight what is really just a hysteria and then claim victory when it, once again, passes quickly. The only real danger lies in actually taking concrete steps.

Be afraid, but not of the flu (The Ottawa Citizen, April 28, 2009)

A vaccine against a version of swine flu in the 1970s ended up killing more people than the virus did. Every preventive measure can have unintended consequences. If Canadians were to start running to the emergency room every time they got the sniffles, the health-care system will be unable to function properly.

If other countries slap travel advisories on Canada because a few cases have turned up here, or if international trade slows because of unnecessary barriers at the borders, the consequences to the economy could be severe, even if swine flu itself turns out to be a mere blip on the radar of the epidemiologists.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2009 12:13 PM
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