Bad Memories

An understaffing at health agencies does not inspire confidence in flu response.

The Change-o-Meter is now a widget. You can add it to your blog, Web site, or profile with just a few clicks. (Shortcut for Facebook here.)Each time we publish a new column, the widget will automatically update to reflect the latest score.

Any humble, Obama-esque boasting planned for the president’s 100th day in office seems likely to be derailed by the growing concern over the swine flu, whose status is currently just two levels below a full-scale pandemic. To assuage the general sense of panic, White House officials nostalgically sent a low-flying jetliner over New York City in order to photograph it. But not everything has collapsed into chaos. The Senate seems calm enough to confirm Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services later today, and a different secretary is working on reversing an environmentally unfriendly Bush administration policy. Obama scores an 11 on the Change-o-Meter.

Obama’s 100-day anniversary may be approaching, but the news cycle is all oink, all the time. The jury is out on whether the swine flu panic will overshadow the day or give Obama a stage on which to flex his crisis-management muscles. (The Washington Post, for one,has sagely predicted that the crisis will require a response that’s a little bit 9/11, a little bit Katrina.) The ‘Meter is tempted to reach into the desk drawer to pull out that old SARS mask—even though it’s useless—since the administration will be putting into effect an untested pandemic plan despite dozens of top employee vacancies at HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there are no major signs of 2005-style mismanagement yet, the ‘Meter docks 10 points for all the empty chairs in important offices. (However, it does award Obama one bonus point for not catching the flu on his recent jaunt south of the border.)

The silver lining of the pig flu frenzy, however, is the likely confirmation of Sebelius. Apparently, all it takes to get a secretarial candidate past the abortion litmus test is an ordained public health emergency. The ‘Meter re-awards those 10 points for putting the pressure on to get some key staff members on the payroll in advance of a full-blown crisis.

Finally, in some blessedly influenza-free news, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has asked the Justice Department to pursue legal routes to overturn a Bush-era regulation allowing mountaintop mining companies to dump their waste near rivers and streams. Some ardent environmentalists are predictably squawking that the policy reversal is not tough enough on coal mining companies. But this move, plus recent (albeit vague) talk of greenhouse-gas emissions legislation, amounts to a slow but steady effort to move U.S. environmental policy in a more pro-Earth direction. For that, Obama racks up 10 more points.