Biden's flu remarks create headache for White House

McClatchy NewspapersApril 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden, already known for his gaffes, pulled a doozy on Thursday.

Biden told a national TV audience he was urging his own family to stay off commercial airliners and out of subways for fear of catching the swine flu, a statement that went way farther than any from the Obama administration. Then it drew a quick rebuke from a travel industry fearing a wave of cancellations, and an apology from the White House.

The slip and the rush to damage control were the latest in a long line of misstatements, mistakes and outright gaffes that have marked Biden's career.

"He just naturally says what's on his mind. That is both a cause of concern to some and a charm to others," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.

Biden's tendency to say things that are impolitic or incorrect suggests challenges for a White House with an otherwise disciplined message machine.

"This not a matter of going to war, but it does reflect the difficulty the White House has keeping Biden on the reservation," Gerston said.

"They don't have control over him," added Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "He shoots from the hip. He always has. . . This isn't the first time, and it won't be the last."

This latest episode started when Biden appeared on NBC Thursday morning and was asked about the swine flu.

"I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said when asked about avoiding the flu.

He said he has told his family to avoid such modes of transportation as airplanes and subway cars where one sneeze can be recirculated and spread to everyone.

"If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or a closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's a different thing."

The problem was immediately clear: The Obama administration had issued no such policy.

The government has cautioned against non-essential travel to Mexico, but not against any travel in the U.S. It's urged the sick to stay home, but not the healthy.

Soon after Biden left the studio, his office rushed out a statement trying to finesse what he'd said.

"The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico," spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander said.

"If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week."

That's not, however, what Biden said on TV. And the travel industry, fearing a panic, called Biden to task.

"Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity," said Roger Dow, the president of the U.S. Travel Association.

"According to President Obama, swine flu is a cause for concern, but not panic. President Obama's measured and responsible comments are appropriate and should provide useful guidance to other elected officials."

By Thursday afternoon, the White House was ready to apologize.

"Obviously, if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

SOME BIDEN GAFFES

  • As the stock markets fell last fall, he said that "when the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television and . . . said, 'Look, here's what happened.'" Herbert Hoover was president at the time of the 1929 crash, not Roosevelt, and there was no television yet.
  • During a campaign event last fall, he told Democratic state Sen. Chuck Graham of Missouri to "stand up, let the people see you." Graham, a paraplegic, was in a wheelchair.
  • This week, Biden traveled to a conference in Obama's hometown of Chicago and noted, "all 32 of Chicago's aldermen are in attendance. That's more people than we have in Delaware." There are 50 aldermen in Chicago — and 865,000 people in Delaware.
  • At the start of his own campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, he called Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
  • On immigration trends, he once said, "You cannot go to a 7/11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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