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Cabinet Secretaries to Give Briefing on Flu; Troops Help Fight Flu; Chrysler in Bankruptcy

Aired April 30, 2009 - 15:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happen now, your risk of being infected with swine flu. The vice president says he's told his family to avoid planes and subways. Did he tell it like it is or overstate the danger?

We're standing by for a news briefing by top administration officials.

Chrysler files for bankruptcy and President Obama says the carmaker is getting a new lease on life. But thousands of Chrysler workers around the country don't know their lives will be turned upside down.

And Miss California finds a new stage to oppose same-sex marriage. Critics say the controversial beauty queen is promoting an agenda and herself.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're standing by to hear from the secretaries of Homeland Security and Transportation. They're getting ready to hold a briefing on the global flu outbreak and on the federal government's response to it.

The World Health Organization and other groups are dropping the term "swine flu" to refer to the virus known in scientific circles as the H1N1 Influenza A. A short while ago, the White House revealed that an Energy Department official who traveled to Mexico in advance of the president's recent trip there developed flu-like symptoms. Three of his family members then came down with the flu and are being tested to see if they have the same virus spreading across much of the world right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This individual never flew on Air Force One. The individual would have been at the working dinner on the night of Thursday, or Friday, so Thursday night the 16th. He was asked specifically if he ever came within six feet of the president and the answer to that was no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Obama administration is scrambling to try to stay on top of this fast-spreading virus and the fear that it's spreading along the way.

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

All right, Jeanne. What's the latest?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, government officials have two conference calls daily to coordinate information and public messaging. But today, a wrench was thrown in the system as the country continued to ramp up for a possible pandemic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): At the Washington Hospital Center, preparations for a possible onslaugt of H1N1 cases.

DR. BILL FROHNA, WASHINGTON HOSPITAL CENTER: We have ventilators, cots and wheelchairs.

MESERVE: The number of confirmed cases is edging higher. The official tally from the Centers for Disease Control now 109 confirmed cases in 11 states. The death toll remains at one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're starting to get lots of questions, as you might imagine.

MESERVE: A webcast supplemented the heavy diet of daily briefings, hearings and media appearances by federal, state and local officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks. I was just wondering about the safety of air travel.

JOHN COLMERS, MARYLAND HEALTH SECRETARY: Well, I can tell you that from the standpoint of the CDC, there are no travel advisories that I knew of this morning recommending against...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: We're having a few technical problems there.

We went on to discuss the vice president, who today made a comment that he'd advised his family not to travel by airplane, subway, go to school, or even get in cars. The vice president's office then tried to rework that statement, but much of the day, officials were trying to correct the guidance, which is it is safe to fly in this country. The only travel advisory involves going to Mexico -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because what they were trying to suggest is -- what he meant to say, which he didn't say, that if he had a family member who had some symptoms of the flu, he would say don't go on a plane, don't go on a subway. He didn't exactly say that in the interview, but they've been trying to correct what the vice president had to say all day. MESERVE: They've been correcting it over and over and over again, in every possible form that they can. It's created a little bit of upset in the travel industry. They were very unhappy with the vice president's comments, but hopefully the public is getting the correct message here: Don't travel if you're sick. Don't go to Mexico. Otherwise, they say for now everything's fine.

BLITZER: Yes. We're standing by to hear Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, and Ray LaHood, the secretary of Transportation. They are going to, I'm sure, be asked about that as well.

In fact, I think we have the clip of what the vice president said earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's you're in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes. It goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me.

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 closed container or closed classroom, it's a different thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And the White House then immediately sought to clarify, as they say, what the vice president had to say.

We're going to have a lot more on this part of the story coming up, and we'll hear what the secretaries of Homeland Security and Transportation have to say. We're standing by for their live briefing.

The National Guard, meanwhile, is mobilizing to help fight this flu outbreak, threatening to become a full-blown global epidemic.

Let's go to our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr.

So what's the National Guard doing, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, if anybody wants to stay calm about all this, it's the Pentagon, but in several states now, National Guard, activated by their state governors, are on the scene protecting Tamiflu stocks. Let's look at a map here for a minute.

What we have confirmed is that in the states of Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey and Kansas, all of them have a certain number of National Guard troops on duty protecting these Tamiflu stocks that had been distributed by the Centers for Disease Control. They are in secure facilities, we are told, guarded by the National Guard, but the Guard won't tell us anything else about it. They won't tell us how many troops, whether the troops are armed, or even the exact locations of these secure facilities. So very little public information about these stockpiles of Tamiflu that are being distributed in the states and are being guarded by National Guard military units. Very little information available about all of that.

Let's bring people up to date on one other item. Still awaiting tests on four active-duty members, three Marines at 29 Palms in southern California and another active-duty military member in nearby San Diego. We are told their samples have been sent to the CDC and test results are still being waited for -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Stand by. We'll get back to you as well.

And we'll have more on this swine flu crisis shortly, but let's move on to another major story that has been unfolding all day.

Chrysler files for bankruptcy protection and reaches a deal to combine the company with the Italian carmaker Fiat. Chrysler is set to temporarily stop most production starting -- production here until the restructuring is complete. The company says some plants already have closed because they can't get parts.

President Obama says this isn't a failure for Chrysler, it's a step toward revival.

Let's get some more from our Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president wanted to avoid this, the first U.S. automaker since Studebaker in 1933 to file for bankruptcy. But it really turned out to be the last best hope of saving the company.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): The president vowed the bankruptcy will not disrupt the lives of the car company's employees and will not affect consumers' ability to buy a Chrysler or get one repaired.

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... the process that has the a full support of Chrysler's key stakeholders and the full backing of the United States government. And I have every confidence that Chrysler will emerge from this process stronger and more competitive.

HENRY: But industry analysts are not quite as optimistic, noting the bankruptcy process can be messy in the short term, and it's tough to change American buying habits over the long haul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And if the American public suddenly decides that these same Chrysler products that they haven't been buying, that they want to buy them, and Chrysler starts to pick up market share, they may pull through, but those are a lot of ifs, and there's a heck of a lot of risk.

HENRY: The deal brings Italian automaker Fiat in for an alliance, while CEO Robert Nardelli will be out when the revamped company emerges from bankruptcy, with up to $8 billion in help from taxpayers.

OBAMA: Every dime of new taxpayer money will be repaid before Fiat can take a majority ownership stake in Chrysler.

HENRY: The president's auto task force tried to avoid bankruptcy by getting several financial firms led by JPMorgan to agree to vastly reduce Chrysler's debt. But the president's team was outraged when a group of investment firms and hedge funds held out for better terms.

OBAMA: Some demanded twice the return that other lenders were getting. I don't stand with them. I stand with Chrysler's employees and their families and communities.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right. That was Ed Henry reporting.

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, is now briefing the press.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: ... be made based on the best science and best epidemiology that we know, and that is informing all of our decisions here.

Prioritized states are now receiving antivirals. And let me -- there's been some confusion about the difference between a vaccine and an antiviral.

A vaccine is something that one takes to prevent the occurrence of disease. An antiviral is something one takes after you've already become sick.

We have stockpiled in this country 50 million courses of the right kinds of antivirals for this particular flu, Tamiflu and Relenza. Fifty million courses.

In addition, the states have another 23 million courses stockpiled. And the Department of Defense has a number of millions of courses stockpiled.

From the national stockpile, we're already moving Tamiflu and Relenza out to the states with a priority to states that have confirmed incidence of disease. And the complete deployment of 25 percent of the relevant part of the stockpile will be out to the states by the 3rd of May.

In addition, we are sending out -- in addition to the antivirals, we are sending out gloves and masks and other similar equipment. As of this afternoon, antivirals and assets have already reached New York City, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey and, of course, the District of Columbia. And as I said, more continue to get distributed every day until we're complete with the initial wave of distribution by the 3rd of May. We are also working with our private sector and critical infrastructure partners to make sure they're doing what they need to do to educate their employees, and they are making sure they're working through their own planning checklists on what to do in this type of a situation.

With respect to the borders, based on the information supplied to us by the CDC and the World Health Organization, our position has not changed. Customs and Border Patrol agents continue to watch for travelers who demonstrate signs of illness, to make sure that they are taking appropriate action.

We are also taking similar action in our nation's airports. But, as the president noted last night, closing the entire borders would have no benefit at this point because the virus is already present in the United States. The comparison is clear. It's like closing the barn door well after the horse has left. In addition, the CDC continues to issue community guidance and guidelines for what localities can do, schools, school districts can do, as we go through this.

If you are a parent and you may believe that at some point, your school, the school or schools where your children go, may be temporarily closed, be sure you have thought ahead about what you will do with your children and how you make sure that that's appropriately taken care of. And importantly, if a school is closed, it is not closed so that kids can go out to the mall or go out into the community at large. They're being asked to stay home because the entire purpose is to limit containment, communication within the communities. So if a school is closed, the guidance is and the request is to keep your young ones at home.

Washing hands often with soap and water, covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze, staying home if you are sick, and contacting your health care provider or doctor if you have severe flu-like symptoms are part of the commonsense guidance that we are following.

With that, there are several issues or questions that have been raised with respect to travel, so I'm pleased today to be joined by the secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, and we'll ask him to come forward -- Ray.

RAY LAHOOD, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: 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 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Secretary Napolitano.

The Department of State has mobilized all of its resources and expertise to address the challenge. From the immediate onset of the spread of H1N1, we had organized a task force in our operation center that's 24/7 so that all information coming in from around the world could be coordinated.

We have just upgraded the task force, upgraded this operation to a task force, which it was headed by Ambassador Robert G. Loftis, who heads our office of Avian and Pandemic Influenza Action.

The task force is in constant and close contact with all of our embassies around the world, all of our mission. And the point of contact for foreign governments as they reach out to us and as we reach out to them to understand what is developing and what forms of assistance are being requested, and then we in turn are then coordinating with all of the other agencies of the U.S. government. And as the other departments, are taking guidance from the CDC for the actions that we ought to be taking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Time for a few questions.

QUESTION: Secretary LaHood, if I could ask you some more about travel, you're saying it's safe to travel any form of transportation in the U.S., airplanes, buses, subways?

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.

QUESTION: Secretary Napolitano, let me ask you about something you said in your testimony yesterday about the fact that some of these folks who are diverted as they enter the U.S. for observation are cleared within a few minutes. How are they able to tell within a few minutes whether someone has the H1N1 virus?

NAPOLITANO: Well, first of all, it may be that somebody just has a cold and says, "I just have a cold. I have no fever." You know, those sorts of things. So it's really, again, a pretty straightforward application about this.

QUESTION: Secretary, can you address (OFF-MIKE), that Customs and Border Patrol officers should not wear or use face masks at ports of entry when they're encountering travelers. And you said today during (OFF-MIKE). Can you tell us what that is?

NAPOLITANO: That's right. I heard some of those members of Congress, and they just have incorrect information.

There has been no departmental guidance given because we were waiting to assemble the best advice we could from others about what should happen with respect to our own employees. But we're in the process, and we'll be issuing guidance out to our own employees, as will be issued to federal employees, I think, generally over the next day or two.

QUESTION: Secretary Napolitano, you mentioned yesterday at one of the hearings -- I just lost track...

NAPOLITANO: It seemed like there were a lot of them.

QUESTION: Yes -- about possibly (OFF-MIKE).

NAPOLITANO: I said -- no, I think what you're referring to is, I said in response to a question that we would look at issues relevant to the issuance of H2A visas which involve agricultural workers. What that says is I don't know what is already done with respect to how those visas are issued, what, if any, health advisories or health checks are given.

So we're just going to double check that. Haven't done it yet though.

BLITZER: Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, briefing reporters on what's going on, together with Ray LaHood, the secretary of Transportation.

We'll continue to monitor this briefing, but I want to get some analysis of what's going on from Laurie Garrett. She's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the book "The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance."

Is this the coming plague that you've been writing about?

LAURIE GARRETT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, it's certainly a scenario that fits what I was writing about. It's probably not anywhere near as lethal as some of the pandemic possibilities we've been considering though.

BLITZER: Because yesterday we heard that a pandemic, according to the World Health Organization, was imminent right now. They've moved up to a level 5 out of 6.

When you hear that, people get nervous, understandably so.

GARRETT: Yes, sure. Of course.

But right now, the big missing gap is understanding the dominator. How many people in Mexico are infected versus what percentage has become severely ill or died? And until we really know that denominator, we're kind of in a big black box. But it's beginning to look like this is a very widespread infection in Mexico. And this 100 plus or minus who have passed away are regrettable, but probably not more than we would see in a routine flu year.

BLITZER: So are we overreacting right now based on what you know?

GARRETT: I don't think we're overreacting. In fact, I'm very impressed with the response.

I think it's been quite good not only in the United States, but especially in Mexico. I think we all owe a big debt to Mexico, because by taking the severe measures they have taken, having people stay home, shutting down all their sports and so on, they probably bought all of us a lot of time and minimized the amount of spread in Mexico, and allowed the situation to settle down a bit.

Now the next step and the big question down the road is, what happens, since we're at the end of our flu season, and we're going to have hot weather soon, what happens in the fall? Will this virus come back?

BLITZER: In a second wave.

GARRETT: In a second wave, which, of course, in 1918, in the great pandemic which killed 100 million people, it was the second wave that was the serious wave.

BLITZER: Well, we'd like to think in 100 years, we've learned a lot about -- from biology in order to deal with that, that we didn't know back in 1918.

GARRETT: Yes, we have. We didn't even really understand what a virus was in 1918. So we have tremendous increase in understanding, but that doesn't translate necessarily into instantaneous technologies that could solve a problem.

BLITZER: Did the vice president, Joe Biden, have a point this morning when he suggested that people shouldn't fly or go on subways?

GARRETT: With all do respect to the vice president, who I admire in many ways, he is not an expert in public health, and he was wrong. I think that if there are problems in airplanes, it is when the airlines choose to save fuel costs by minimizing the number of air exchanges to the outside, because it costs a lot of fuel to re- pressurize the cabin and keeping the temperature warm enough for the passengers. So some airlines have historically tried to cheat on this, not circulate the air enough, not run it past state-of-the-art HEPA filters. That's the responsibility of our Transportation Department, to ensure that the airlines are picking up their side of the game. BLITZER: One final question. Fort Worth, they closed all the schools because there was a kid, apparently, who came down with the swine flu. Eighty thousand students, at least for a week, are not going to be in school. Close to 200,000 kids aren't in school because they've closed a whole bunch of other schools around the country.

Is that prudent or is that overreacting?

GARRETT: Well, I think you have to walk a fine line and make these decisions. Parents get very upset if they think you're keeping their children in harm's way, and they get very upset if they have to stay home from work because their children can't go to school. Every single school district has to make these decisions and balance these two levels of parental pressure. Presumably, health authorities there had some reason to believe it was a wise choice.

BLITZER: Laurie, thanks for coming in.

GARRETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've been bombarded with this swine flu stuff for several days now.

When the World Health Organization raised the pandemic alert to the second highest level of 5 yesterday, don't you know the media just couldn't get enough? They were all over it because this stuff sells newspapers and gets ratings. But if you look at the numbers, it seems like this story might be a tad overblown.

The World Health Organization has confirmed 257 cases of swine flu worldwide. There are 6 billion people on this planet. Ninety- seven cases in Mexico, with seven deaths there.

Now, Mexican officials reported much higher numbers -- 2,500 cases, 150 deaths. But the World Health Organization said those numbers that Mexico's reporting have not been confirmed.

In the United States, the WHO says there are 109 cases. We have 300 million people here. One person has died. That was a child who had been in Mexico.

It hardly seems to be cause for alarm.

Scientists who are studying the virus say the strain of influenza doesn't look as deadly as strains that have caused previous pandemics. In fact, some scientists suggest the current form of the swine flu virus many not even do as much damage as the regular old garden variety flu does, and here are some numbers that support that idea.

Thirteen thousand people in this country have died from regular flu since January. It's expected it will continue to kill hundreds of people every week. Thirty-six thousand people a year die in the United States from the flu. Not the swine flu, just the flu.

Worldwide, the death toll from the flu between 250,000 and 500,000 people. One scientist tells the "Los Angeles Times" that just because the swine flu is being identified in more countries doesn't mean it's especially spreading quickly. Quoting now, "You don't ever find anything that you don't look for."

So here's the question: Has the swine flu story been overblown?

Here's a hint -- yes.

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and you can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK. Good hint, Jack. Thanks very much.

The man is 47 years old, the girl is 8 years old. They were husband and wife. That sparked an international outrage and now there's a new twist to this story.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a swine flu reality check. Just how dangerous is it? The current health leaders are watching for what would signal an even more serious threat.

Plus, shutting down classrooms. Hundreds of schools across the United States are now closed to stop the spread of the virus. Why some top health experts say it's not an overreaction.

And a car careens into a parade honoring a popular queen. Why investigators say this crash was no accident.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Now that the number of flu cases is growing, many plane passengers flying to and from Mexico are covering up out of fear. But should they have reason to fear flying right now?

Let's go straight to our Brian Todd. We asked him to check into this story for us -- Brian.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're here at the international arrivals terminal at Dulles International Airport, as you can see, a fairly steady stream of arrivals from anywhere from Amsterdam, to Mexico City, to Munich. Now, passengers are telling us today that their flights were fairly full. But the question is, after some remarks by the vice president, will international travel continue to be busy?

(voice-over): A mobile flu virus known to have traveled from Mexico to the U.S. and beyond by plane.

The vice president tells NBC's "Today Show" what he's told his own family.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TODAY SHOW")

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would not go anywhere in confined places now. It is not that it's going to Mexico. It's, you are in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Joe Biden's office later clarified that, saying, what he really meant was that people should avoid unnecessary travel to and from Mexico and avoid confined spaces if they're sick.

It still brought a mixed reaction from arriving international passengers at Dulles Airport outside Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're in a confined space, so you know how germs travel quickly anyway. So, yes, I -- I would think twice, perhaps, about traveling in an economy cabin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For me, I don't think it's as bad as (INAUDIBLE) makes -- makes it look.

TODD: Officials at the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines and is working closely with the CDC in this crisis, counter Biden's claim, saying, a sneeze does not go all the way through an aircraft.

The air, they say, does not circulate the length of the plane, but rather sideways on each row and is exchanged with outside air through state-of-the-art filters.

JAMES MAY, PRESIDENT AND CEO, AIR TRANSPORTATION ASSOCIATION: The ventilation system in a modern aircraft today is actually equivalent to or better than in most modern office buildings. We use HEPA filters, which are the kinds used in hospitals. And, so, it is truly very safe to fly.

TODD: The ATA says it's impossible for crews to disinfect every plane more than they already do, but on aircraft which fly in and out of flu zones or those which have carried flu victims, they are applying extra cleaning on hard surfaces, like armrests and tray tables, where viruses could linger.

(on camera): Now, there's an important bottom line that the Airport Transport Association wants to get out there. And that is that, so far, they have not identified any cases where patients with the H1N1 virus transferred the illness to anyone else on the same plane -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Brian Todd at Dulles Airport outside Washington.

Google, meanwhile, is helping track the spread of the new flu in Mexico by tracking Web searches for flu symptoms as an indicator of where people are getting sick.

Let's go to Abbi Tatton. She's taking a closer look.

All right, Abbi, what's Google picking up?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it was right here in Mexico City, about April 19, that there was a spike in Google searches of things like flu symptoms, body aches, thermometers, that kind of thing.

Now, this was about four or five days before Mexican officials announced the swine flu. So, it wasn't yet in the news, an early indicator that flu cases were springing up even before public health officials noted it.

And now Google, at Google.org, is posting experimental maps of the searches that have been going on around Mexico, so people can follow along with where the flu activity is in that country.

Google's been following this kind of data here in the United States since November, after they noticed that people searching for things like "Where do I buy a thermometer?" very closely matched CDC's own flu data about where flu activity was happening around the country.

Now, unfortunately, Google wasn't tracking Mexico at that time of the outbreak, so they were not able to provide any kind of early warning to officials there. But they are posting that material now. And they're also looking closely to filter out all the hundreds of thousands of general flu searches that people are doing right now, and focus only on those searches that are likely done by people with symptoms -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Abbi, thanks very much for that.

As of noon Eastern time today, about 298 schools in the United States closed because of either confirmed, suspected or simply fear of swine flu. And 30 schools have closed for cleaning. The Department of Education says, more than 176,000 students across the country right now are affected.

And many of these affected schools are -- and students are in Texas.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has more from Dallas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, 80,000 students at more than 140 schools here in Fort Worth, Texas, have been told to stay away, stay home. And school district officials have announced they are closing schools here until May 11 because of the swine flu virus.

This comes on the heels of the news that one student was confirmed to have the virus. Three others, district officials say, might have the virus. So, as the students were told to stay away, cleaning crews were brought in to the schools today and will begin the process of disinfecting virtually every -- everything inside these school buildings.

MELODY JOHNSON, SUPERINTENDENT, FORT WORTH INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: What we're doing is sanitizing every room in every building in the district. We will clean everything that people touch, and especially children touch, so keyboard keys. That's what I was talking about when we came in. We can't forget anything or overlook anything that there is consistent hands on in -- in our schools.

So, it's obviously desktops, computer keyboards, the white boards that we're using now in -- in all of our schools.

LAVANDERA: Now, school district officials say they are sensitive to the criticism that this might be perceived as an overreaction. And that's what they say they have been torn with, overreacting or not reacting at all.

And, in the end, they say, if it is overreacting, that they felt much more comfortable doing that, because that would be the best way to ensure the safety and health of their students -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera in Fort Worth for us, where they closed the schools.

Many Republicans acknowledge their party is in need of an extreme makeover right now. And they're going to new lengths to try to look and act like winners.

Plus, President Obama says Chrysler is getting a new lease on life. Is he overconfident about the car industry's ability to bounce back?

And Miss California adds fuel to the controversy about her views on same-sex marriage. She's the new face of a conservative group's ad campaign.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We saw Obama economic adviser Christina Romer today is predicting a continued decline in the economy and more job losses in the days and weeks ahead.

But a research group with a strong track record of forecasting economic trends says the recession likely will end before the summer is out.

Are Americans seeing some light at the end of the tunnel?

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Economic confidence, is it rising?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would tell you -- I would put it this way. Pessimism is declining.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The public's assessment of the economy has gone from bad to not so bad.

JOHN AVLON, AUTHOR, "INDEPENDENT NATION": And, already, you're seeing Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction, feeling optimistic about the future, key indicators even in a tough time, that we haven't seen in a while.

SCHNEIDER: In December, two-thirds of the public thought economic conditions in the country were very poor. By March, just under half felt that way. And now? So, happy days are here again? Not quite.

Very few Americans think times are good, but a growing number say things are somewhat poor, rather than very poor. Hey, look, we will take what we can get.

In January, two-thirds of Americans said they were either happy or thrilled about having Barack Obama as president. And now the thrill is down, or at least gone down. But the public is still happy with President Obama. After the initial excitement, Americans understand that this will take time.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), MAJORITY LEADER: A fast start to a long race. President Obama and the 111th Congress took office facing an historic recession, a banking crisis, a housing meltdown, and two wars.

SCHNEIDER: The president is more popular than his policies. Even his critics give him high marks on his leadership.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: I think he's very effectively achieving his agenda. That's a grade. Then, if I look at the agenda, I believe he's taking the country very, very much in the wrong direction.

SCHNEIDER: The president claims he's keeping his promises.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The changes that we have made are the changes we promised.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHNEIDER: The people agree. Two-thirds say President Obama has done a good job keeping his campaign promises, more than twice the number who thought President Clinton was keeping his promises after 100 days.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Remember the signature Obama campaign poster with one word, hope? That's what we're seeing in the polls, less despair, more hope -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much. We will see what happens. A lot of people are hopeful.

"The Wall Street Journal," by the way, is out with a poll that says the president himself is more popular than his policies. That's great when you're new. But, after 100 days, and Mr. Obama isn't so new anymore, and, eventually, being popular could be problematic, if -- if -- he's not able to push his agenda forward.

So, how do you turn popularity into action?

Here's CNN's Alina Cho.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He's courtside at basketball games, on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." And, lately, he's all about the dog. If a president's first 100 days are about style, the next 100 will be about substance, says Larry Sabato, author of the new book "The Year of Obama."

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: Over time, reality will impinge upon style. After all, the economy is still in terrible shape. Unemployment is rising. Lots of other economic indicators are still in the dumpster.

CHO: Sabato says, eventually, Americans will start asking the same question Ronald Reagan did during his presidential campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, OCTOBER 28, 1980)

RONALD REAGAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: So, how does President Obama turn popularity into action? Some say, follow Reagan's playbook. He was popular even when his policies weren't, says body language expert T.J. Walker.

T.J. WALKER, AUTHOR, "SECRET TO FOOLPROOF PRESENTATIONS": Barack Obama is using the same skills for the same means. He's getting Republicans and conservatives who might normally oppose him automatically to at least respect him.

CHO: Presidential historian Doug Brinkley says the president has also has luck, most recently, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican- turned-Democrat.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Having a 60 filibuster-proof majority, very powerful tool for Obama. He's now entering the -- of what Lyndon Johnson had, an ability to just put programs through.

CHO: The question is, what kinds of programs?

BRINKLEY: And you start feeling, you know what? Maybe this is a revolutionary moment in America. Maybe I am supposed to do the big change, not little, incremental changes. And he's hovering on that right now.

CHO: One potential weakness, Brinkley says, the president hates conflict. And Brinkley says, in order to be effective, you have to be tough.

BRINKLEY: But, eventually, if things get bad, it's -- it's -- it's going to be a weakness in his armor, because the -- the flood from the Republicans against him could overwhelm him at some point, if he doesn't show a little more strength of character.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That was CNN's Alina Cho reporting.

Sarah Palin set to get her motor running -- apparently, she's about to prove she's a motorcycle-loving governor.

And a queen a and royal family, they are attacked -- now five people are dead. You're going to find out what turned a celebration of Queen's Day into a bizarre horror.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I stand with the millions of Americans who own and want to buy Chrysler cars.

I don't stand with those who held out when everybody else is making sacrifices. That's why I'm supporting Chrysler's plans to use our bankruptcy laws to clear away its remaining obligations so the company can get back on its feet and on to a path of success.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president of the United States today talking about Chrysler's decision to file for bankruptcy.

Let's talk about the political fallout in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen. She's a Democratic strategist. And Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist.

How can he be so upbeat, Hilary, that this is going to actually work out?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, of course, you don't know, but he has worked really hard in the last several days, as has his advisers for the last several weeks, to find a solution for Chrysler that avoids, you know, hundreds of thousands of job layoffs.

And I think what we have seen is, you know, a determined president who is focused on saving jobs, knowing that, you know, it's fewer new jobs they have to create if they can save jobs that already exist in an -- in an industry that -- that Americans still want to see succeed.

BLITZER: Is this going to work out, Leslie?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: From the people I'm talking to in the financial markets and that cover the auto industry, they do believe this is a very strong positive.

One person said that Obama was a hero in this respect. I can hear the cringing from a lot of conservative right now.

(LAUGHTER)

SANCHEZ: But the reality is, the unions got what they wanted. They're now 55 percent ownership with their health care trust.

And they are -- basically have traded dollars for ownership. And now they're -- they're all going to be able to come together, renegotiate some of those union deals, and put together a more competitive company. Is this the way people wanted to work it -- for it to work out? No.

I think an interesting thing, too, is that 35 percent that's owned by Fiat. A lot of people believe that's going to bring innovation to the market and, overall, make this company more competitive five, six years down the line.

BLITZER: And we will see if -- what the impact will be, Hilary, on General Motors. They have until June 1 to decide how they're going to restructure, if they're going to into bankruptcy, or try to avoid that.

But it would seem this does put some pressure on GM to follow Chrysler's lead.

ROSEN: You have really seen this president drill down in the auto industry, knowing the importance, not just of the direct jobs in manufacturing, but also the number of jobs in the ancillary supply side and on the dealer side.

And, you know, this kind of focus is extraordinary, for a president of the United States to be this involved, to -- to put sort of the -- the full faith and credit of the United States, not just financially, but, you know, politically, into saving this industry.

BLITZER: Because you heard, Leslie... SANCHEZ: But...

(CROSSTALK)

ROSEN: It's a -- it's just a tremendous effort.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on.

You heard the president say, Leslie, that the U.S. government is going to back up all those guarantees and those warranties to Chrysler to -- to Chrysler, to make sure that people aren't worried that, if they buy a Chrysler now, in three, four, five years, their -- their warranty's going to go away.

SANCHEZ: That's the optic. That's the public reassurance game and the P.R. message in this.

But, the bottom line, I think people are going to be concerned and hold the concern. Once the government gets their hooks into you, when is the government going to step back? That is going to be the part that is going to be measured. People want to see this industry succeed. They had to get rid of that bad debt. The restructuring is good. But the government is not in the auto business.

BLITZER: All right.

SANCHEZ: They are now. But we're hoping they step away...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me move on to Arlen Specter, his decision to leave the Republican Party, become a Democrat.

The president, at his news conference last night, was asked about this.

Listen to what he said, Hilary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: So, I think, it's, overall, a positive. Now, I am under no illusions that, suddenly, I'm going to have a rubber-stamp Senate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's going to have a lot of work to do to get to that 60 -- 60 margin to beat back a Republican filibuster, because there are several conservative Democrats in that Senate who might not automatically go along. Forget about Arlen Specter. ROSEN: You know, the key thing for Arlen Specter, I think, for the -- for the Democrats, are really the procedural votes, really, where senators are more likely to vote with their party on -- on issues like cloture and stopping filibusters, than they are on -- on underlying bills.

So, there will be tough votes on energy, tough votes on health care. I think Specter helps the Senate leadership get to that. But, you know, make no mistake about it. This had to happen for Arlen Specter, because Barack Obama registered almost, you know, 450,000 new Democrats in Pennsylvania. He was going to lose as a Republican.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSEN: And, you know, I think the president is being awfully gracious now with Specter about taking advantage of this. And I -- I know Arlen Specter is going to repay him on some critical votes.

SANCHEZ: No, that's -- but that's why.

BLITZER: And it became clear today...

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Yes.

SANCHEZ: That's -- I have to agree with Hilary on that one. I think he has a wide-open road with respect to that.

Let's not, you know, kid ourselves. This was a decision made for political purposes. He could not -- he was losing 2-1 to Pat Toomey in the Republican primary. There are a lot of disaffected Republicans, conservative Democrats who are frustrated in that state. And it was a political motivation.

Don't see that -- and now the onus is very much on this president. What is he going to do with that political capital? Is he going to move on immigration reform, like he said last night?

BLITZER: And...

SANCHEZ: Is he going to talk about health care? Is he going to, you know, fundamentally rebuild this economy? That's, I think, what a lot of us are waiting to see.

BLITZER: The president of the United...

ROSEN: He's working on all of it.

BLITZER: The president of the United States, the vice president of the United States, they both said they would campaign for Arlen Specter if there's a Democratic primary.

Today, we learned that one Democratic congressman, Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, a retired admiral, says he's not ruling out the possibility he might challenge Arlen Specter for the Democratic nomination for the Senate. So, this could become a little bit more interesting.

All right, guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Some people are warning that the swine flu outbreak has been overhyped. Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail on the subject.

Plus, parents and public health officials are raising questions about schools that are closing their doors because of flu fears.

And, later, a beauty queen in a not-so-pretty political fight -- Miss California takes her now-famous opposition to same-sex marriage to a new level.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker": America's most famous hockey mom becomes a motorcycle mom. Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska appears tonight on an episode of TLC's "American Chopper."

She joins a motorcycle-building crew that wants to create a bike to honor Alaska's 50th anniversary as a state. We're told the former vice presidential nominee chats with the show's hosts about snowmobiling and fishing while sitting on a bearskin throw in her office.

Palin's former political partner is getting some TV time of his own. John McCain will host a marathon of movies celebrating war heroes on Memorial Day weekend. The former prisoner of war and Republican presidential nominee will introduce films on the AMC cable network, including "Midway," "Patton," and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" McCain says the most interesting thing he's found about heroes is that they're the last people to believe that they're really heroes.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com.

Let's go back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is, has the swine flu story been overblown.

Doug in Dallas writes: "Wow, that's an understatement. Nothing more than a new strain of the flu, comes every year. It isn't any more contagious than regular flu. We don't hear anything about the 36,000 people who die every year from the normal flu, so what's the big deal? If school systems shut down every time a kid got sick, i.e. Fort Worth, Texas, they would never be open."

Danny writes: "Are you kidding me? Hell, yes, it is overblown. This has to be the rhetorical question of the century."

Richard in Pennsylvania: "Jack, as it stands now, yes. But, if it were to become a killer virus, then the answer is no. You may be asking this question too early. You might have to ask it again next winter." Carrie in Seattle: "It's been completely overblown. I'm ready for it to stop now. How about everybody learn to properly wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough, et cetera? Then we can tackle all the different flu bugs at once without mass hysteria. It's ridiculous."

Terence in New Jersey says: "It's not overblown at all. When a member of our family catches this disease, we will all know what to do to get well and not spread it around. This is what makes our country so great. We are well-informed about everything through the media and you, Jack."

And Courtney in Connecticut: "Overblown or not, I'm tired of hearing about it. I was initially concerned -- my brother is getting married in Mexico in July -- and then frustrated. Now I just want everyone, especially the hypochondriac in my office, to take a step back for five minutes and chill. The sky is not falling, folks."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile. Look for yours there, among hundreds of others -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thanks very much.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: The world braces for a flu pandemic, as the H1N1 spreads in the United States and around the world. And now we're learning the present danger may not be as bad as many fear, but the future danger could be worse. We will explain.

Hundreds of schools now closed because of flu fears -- hundreds of thousands of students are being kept home, posing serious problems for working parents.

And Vice President Joe Biden -- Biden outrages the travel industry with his remarks about the flu. Now his office is trying to backtrack. We will talk about that and more with James Carville and Tony Blankley. They're here.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Following all the latest developments, as the H1N1 flu virus, what we have been calling swine flu, teeters on the brink of pandemic. The World Health Organization now reports 257 confirmed cases worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 109 of them are here in the United States.