It’s doubtful that’s how most Americans remember the outbreak. A few historic moments from the past half century are seared into the nation’s collective consciousness: John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Vietnam War. Watergate. September 11.
COVID-19 will be part of that dark roll call. The swine flu will not.
Read: This is how Donald Trump will be remembered
A total of 12,500 Americans died from the disease in 2009 and 2010, fewer people than the number who perished from the seasonal flu in the same period. After-action reports show that the Obama administration’s handling of the swine flu was largely effective. Testing devised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proved accurate—unlike the early tests produced to detect the coronavirus. A vaccine was available just six months after the first infections were reported.
Biden didn’t play a lead role in the administration’s response, though he used his congressional ties to win $8 billion in funding from lawmakers for vaccines and medical supplies, a recent Politico review found. His main misstep was going off script at one point by saying he wouldn’t want his family flying on planes for fear of contagion. An Obama spokesman later apologized for any unnecessary alarm Biden’s remarks had caused.
Nonetheless, Trump is trying to convince voters that the swine flu was at least a dry run, and Biden stumbled. “The most notable thing he did was to erroneously tell the country not to fly on airplanes, and the Obama administration had to run around to clean up the mess,” Tim Murtaugh, a Trump-campaign spokesperson, told me.
Trump has had less to say about Biden’s response to the far more dangerous epidemic the Obama administration confronted, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Biden’s former chief of staff, Ron Klain, who advises his campaign, led the administration’s efforts to contain the outbreak as the White House’s Ebola czar. Here, too, Biden wasn’t a central player, though he helped arrange medical assistance to West Africa and gave advice on how best to contain the outbreak. Despite widespread public fears about Ebola, the response was successful: Only 11 people were treated for the disease in the U.S. from 2014 to 2016, according to the CDC.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic argument Trump’s political advisers have made lately about Biden is that he is too close to China, a relationship they argue could compromise America’s national security and public health. Tying Biden to China fits within a larger strategy of demonizing that country and reviving the economic-nationalist argument that Trump successfully invoked in the 2016 race.
Last week, Trump’s team released a new ad that portrays Biden as overly credulous when it comes to China, suggesting that he wouldn’t hold its leaders accountable for failing to extinguish the virus. “Biden has no demonstrated history of ever standing firm against China on anything,” Bryan Lanza, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidential transition team, told me.