Swine flu is upon us and our government is responding to the budding crisis with its usual mix of incompetence, quiet inefficiency, and the race to see which official can cover their arse more thoroughly. In this game of bureaucratic musical chairs, the one left standing when the music stops usually ends up getting the blame if anything goes wrong.
Realizing this, our president played golf while his people danced, dodged, and weaved like prize pugilists, trying not to induce panic, but also trying not to sound too blase about the whole thing either. It was a delicate balance that none of them achieved.
At a press conference yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — you know, the official in charge of border security who doesn’t think illegally crossing into America is a crime — did her best to cover all the bases as well as her own bureaucratic rear end. She literally spoke out of both sides of her mouth in the same sentence as she tried to explain just what the government meant by a “public health emergency:”
The term “sounds more severe than it really is,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who called the measure “standard operating procedure,” adding, “I wish we could call it a declaration of emergency preparedness.”
Why don’t we just call it “a declaration of our intent to declare a declaration that would declare a possible public health emergency unless it isn’t”?
One believes that if Napolitano had another side of her mouth through which she could have uttered more nonsense — or perhaps another orifice where noise would have been equally enlightening — she would have also used that.
It’s not really her fault. While our president was duffing his way around the links at Andrews Air Force Base, several people who might have proven to be very useful in this crisis were not present at that White House briefing. The reason they weren’t there is because they don’t exist yet — at least not in the sense that they are on the government payroll and enjoying all the perks to which senior bureaucratic officials have become accustomed.
It seems our president has been spending more time planning for the gala celebration of his 100th day in office than actually doing what we’re paying him to do. Right now, the two major crises facing America — the bank mess and swine flu — are being addressed by executive departments that have a lot of empty offices due to the singular failure of the boss to hire high-level appointees at Treasury and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assist in dealing with the problems.
There is no HHS secretary yet, as Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius awaits the pleasure of Democrats in the Senate. The president’s first choice, Tom Daschle, withdrew his name after a wee spot of trouble with the tax man, and, as is his fashion, the president went about the task of naming a replacement for him in a leisurely fashion. In fact, given that the top 19 desks at at HHS are currently vacant, it’s no wonder that the administration was caught napping on the magnitude of the swine flu problem:
U.S. public health officials did not know about a growing outbreak of swine flu in Mexico until nearly a week after that country started invoking protective measures, and didn’t learn that the deaths were caused by a rare strain of the influenza until after Canadian officials did.
It may be that our “public health officials” didn’t know because there aren’t too many of them in positions of authority at the moment. We apparently have an “acting director” of the Centers for Disease Control named Richard Besser, which I suppose is meant to inspire confidence. The fact that he has been on the job only since late January doesn’t inspire me at all. He joined Napolitano and White House homeland security adviser John Brennan at the press briefing on Sunday.