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Team Obama floods airwaves about flu

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (right) and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hold a news conference on government response to the swine flu at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (right) and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hold a news conference on government response to the swine flu at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, D.C.

President Obama tries to learn from his predecessors’ mistakes, and some see his fast, wide-ranging response to the swine flu threat as a lesson learned from George W. Bush’s much-maligned handling of Hurricane Katrina.

With one confirmed flu death in the United States, it is unclear how severely the disease will affect the nation. But the White House’s communications team forsook a wait-and-see approach Wednesday, sending Obama and several Cabinet members before cameras and Congress to urge vigilance without panic.

For Americans watching cable TV news, it was an almost dizzying succession of speeches and interviews, starting with Obama’s hastily arranged morning comments from the White House. The chief purpose was to welcome Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to the Democratic Party, but Obama devoted several minutes to the flu epidemic.

The president announced no new policies. He repeated previous federal recommendations that officials at schools with confirmed or suspected cases of the flu strain “strongly consider temporarily closing so that we can be as safe as possible.”

All presidents carry much bigger megaphones than government bureaucrats do, however, and Obama’s remarks dominated morning talk shows and news reports. In a nod to unhappy hog farmers and meat packers who noted that the disease is not spread by eating pork, Obama signaled that the administration would refer to the disease as H1N1 flu, not swine flu.

Moments later, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dropped “swine flu” from her prepared remarks and told a Senate panel that dealing with the H1N1 virus will be “a marathon, not a sprint.”

“We have been preparing as if we are facing a true pandemic, even though we don’t know the ultimate scope of what will occur,” Napolitano told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Its co-chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., praised the government’s “rapid, strong and reassuring” actions. He contrasted them with the sluggish 2005 federal response to the devastation caused on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. That episode haunted Bush’s presidency and probably hurt Republican candidates nationwide in 2006.

It’s hardly the first time Obama has drawn lessons from previous administrations’ missteps. He took pains to draft his health care proposals openly and with ample input from Congress, in contrast to the 1993-94 debacle suffered by President Bill Clinton and his wife, who were criticized as too secretive and controlling.

Throughout the day Wednesday, Obama seemed to employ his entire Cabinet in walking a careful line: damping unjustified fears about the flu virus, but stressing the need for precautions, such as washing hands, covering sneezes and seeking medical attention for flulike symptoms.

Minutes after being sworn in as secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius joined a team of health officials to brief reporters. She said her agency’s offices “have distributed Web-based tools to state and community groups,” providing resources and information “regarding the 2009 H1N1 virus.” She promised similar information for the general public.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went on news programs to urge that the term “swine flu” be dropped, and to vouch for the safety of eating pork. He had pork for breakfast, he said, and for dinner the night before.

By mid-afternoon, Napolitano and Sebelius conducted another press briefing, stressing among other things that fighting flu is a bipartisan issue.

Was the administration overdoing it? The flu threat certainly has captured widespread attention, but Obama got no questions about it when he conducted a town hall meeting Wednesday in Arnold, Mo.

He raised the issue himself, while defending U.S. foreign aid. Reverting to the disease’s better-known name, he said, “right now, everybody is concerned about the swine flu, and properly so.”

“If Mexico has a good, strong public health system that is catching these things early, ultimately that’s going to save us money, because flu gets contained,” Obama said. In fighting terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation and pandemics, he said, “it’s not like we can just draw a moat around America, and say, ‘I’m sorry, don’t bother us, keep your problems outside.’ ”

Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.

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