Public Health

Obama Team Spends Day Fixing Biden Flu Gaffe

It was a full day of damage control for the Obama Administration after Vice President Joe Biden went way off message on television this morning, revealing that he'd tell family members to avoid air travel and other confined spaces because of the swine flu.

My blogging partner Mark Memmott captured some of the early efforts on the administration's part to unring the bell. But attempts later in the day bear mentioning too.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, for example, was given the unpleasant job of asking reporters to believe him and not their lying eyes and ears.

So strained was his answer, he actually elicited laughter from the White House press corps.

Here's one exchange:

Q My other question has to do with remarks that Vice President Biden made this morning on television. Representatives of the travel industry have accused the vice president of coming close to fear-mongering because of his comments. I'm wondering if you wanted to clarify or correct or apologize for the remarks that he made.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what the vice president meant to say was the same thing that, again, many members have said in the last few days, and that is, if you feel sick, if you are exhibiting symptoms — flu-like symptoms — coughing, sneezing, runny nose — that you should take precautions, that you should limit your travel. And I think he just — what he said and what he meant to say.

Q With all due respect, and I sympathize with you trying to explain the vice president's comments, but that's not even remotely close to what he said. He was asked about —

MR. GIBBS: I understand.

Q — if a member of his family were —

MR. GIBBS: Jake, I understand what he said, and I'm telling you what he meant to say, which was that — (laughter) — if somebody is experiencing symptoms — you heard the president say this last night — if somebody is feeling sick, if somebody is exhibiting symptoms of being sick, then they should take all necessary precaution. Obviously, if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we — we would apologize for that. And I hope that my remarks and the remarks of people at the CDC and Secretary Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say.

Then Gibbs artfully dodged a question meant to glean President Barack Obama's reaction to Biden's gaffe.

Q Real quick, did the president talk to the vice president about his statement on the "Today Show"?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I know of.

Q And would you characterize his reaction? Since he's been so careful about calibrating this White House message.

MR. GIBBS: Yeah, I don't — I don't think they talked, so it would be hard to characterize a conversation.

But that wasn't the end of it. Since Gibbs was about as close as the White House press corps would be allowed to get to the vice president today, he had to take the shots, and he did:

Q How was it that the vice president's message veered off so radically this morning? Does he get briefed before he goes on television to talk about things like that? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: (Chuckles.) Yes.

Q Did you brief him?

MR. GIBBS: I did not talk with him this morning, no.

Q So what happened?

MR. GIBBS: I — I think he said something on TV differently than what he meant to say.

Q And just to follow up on that, did you — did the White House Press Office consult on the statement that came out from the Vice President's Office after that?

MR. GIBBS: We saw the statement and — before it was put out. That's not highly unusual. I — the Vice President's Office recognized the need to put out a statement quickly and ensure that people had all of the relevant information that they needed.

Q Do you think it misrepresented what the vice president said?

MR. GIBBS: I think the vice president misrepresented what the vice president wanted to say, and what he meant to say was what others have said recently.

Later in the day, it was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who got a turn to try and set the record straight, that the administration's official position is a full 180 degrees away from what came from the vice president's mouth this morning.

SEC. LAHOOD: Thank you, Secretary.

Thank you very much. My message really is that it is safe to fly; there is no reason to cancel flights. We are working with the airline industry to make sure that they have the most up-to-date information from the CDC so that their crews and their staff will know what procedures and measures are necessary to make sure that if there are any signs or symptoms of flu that they can also ensure the safety of their employees and the flying public.

Last evening, I spent 45 minutes on a telephone conversation with the transportation secretary of Mexico. They are not suspending or canceling any flights, and he and I will continue to be in touch with one another on these types of aviation issues.

We are taking our cues from the CDC. We have been at all of the meetings — our office, our department has been at all of the meetings that have been coordinated by the CDC and the White House. And we believe that — that flying is safe and we will continue to monitor the situation. But, really, the CDC is the organization that will give us the guidance as we go forward.

Later, a reporter gave him another chance to rebut the vice president without putting him on the spot by asking him about Biden by name.

Q Secretary LaHood, if I could ask you a little more about travel.

You're saying it's safe to travel on any form of transportation in the U.S. — airplanes, buses, subways —

SEC. LAHOOD: Yes sir. Yes sir. But we encourage the public to follow the guidelines that have been established that were laid out by Secretary Napolitano that — and for all citizens to be observant, you know, if they're concerned about people that they're traveling with.

But these precautions, we think, are the best guidance that we can give the public. But all modes of transportation are safe in America.

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