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First thoughts: Checking all the boxes

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Checking all the boxes: It seems as if President Obama is using his first week in office to make sure many key constituency groups are happy -- from those that care most about international issues (see the naming of key envoys and State visit, as well as the GITMO closing), to those who care about the economy first (see the introduction of the new daily economic briefing, as well tomorrow's visit to Capitol Hill to sell the stimulus), and to those who care about women's issues (see Friday's executive order overturning the abortion gag rule). And today, at 10:30 am ET, Obama checks a box on the environment when he calls for federal regulators to address tighter fuel standards for cars. The New York Times has a good graf summing up all of these moves: "Obama will use the announcement to bolster the impression of a sharp break from the Bush era on all fronts, following his decisions last week to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; tighten limits on interrogation tactics by Central Intelligence Agency officers; order plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq; and reverse President George W. Bush's financing restrictions on groups that promote or provide abortion overseas, administration officials said."

*** Looking for bipartisanship down the road: Why does bipartisanship support for the stimulus matter? Let's get one thing straight: Obama's stimulus plan is going to pass Congress, and the vote won't be that close. But this isn't the goal this week -- or next. For Team Obama, it's about winning over Republicans. And for some on the left, this doesn't compute. After all, some might ask, "Who cares? The election just happened and voters overwhelmingly chose Democrats to run the government, both in the White House and in Congress." But what Obama needs is a Republican Party that isn't consistently confrontational, because he's going to be asking for some trickier bills, including more money for the financial industry, potentially support for nationalizing some parts of the banking industry, and a bunch of money to shore up the housing crisis. So while Obama doesn't need GOP support for stimulus, he wants the opposition to be against him in a way that he can win them over for more favors and -- most importantly -- prevent potential filibusters.

Video: This week Obama will head to Capitol Hill to seek support for his economic stimulus plan. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** The trial of the century: Pick your metaphor, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is the hero in a film about Pearl Harbor, or a Frank Capra movie, or a spaghetti western. Or, as some of his critics like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley have suggested, perhaps he's an extra in "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Well, Blago gets to play the starring role in an impeachment trial drama in Springfield, Ill., that begins today. To oust the governor from office, at least 40 out of 59 state senators must vote to convict him. But Blago won't be there in person; he has boycotted the trial, calling it a "kangaroo court." Instead, he's conducting a series of media interviews. He told NBC's Amy Robach on TODAY that he didn't commit a crime. "I did nothing wrong, and if I did something wrong I would have resigned." And, as has been mentioned repeatedly over the weekend, Blago compared himself to Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Video: Gov. Rod Blagojevich tells NBC's Amy Robach he will boycott his impeachment trial.

*** How you really know you screwed things up: Just how badly did Blagojevich and New York Gov. David Paterson apparently botch their Senate appointments? Well, Sen. Russ Feingold announced yesterday that he will introduce a constitutional amendment this week to end gubernatorial appointments to the Senate, requiring special elections instead. Just askin,' but is Paterson the biggest loser out of this mess? Does this mean he doesn't seem so invulnerable to a primary challenge (from someone like Andrew Cuomo)? Speaking of Paterson and controversial appointments, Kirsten Gillibrand talked to NBC's Lester Holt in an interview that appeared this morning on TODAY. On whether she was Paterson's first choice: "In the end I was." On Caroline Kennedy: "I admire her very much." And on her support for gun rights: "It is part of our culture. It is part of our heritage." But she also said she wants to work with ardent gun opponent Rep. Carolyn McCarthy -- who says she'll challenge Gillibrand in a primary -- to reduce gun violence. Moreover, at 10:00 am ET today, Paterson delivers the keynote address at Gillibrand's economic development summit on green jobs and will hold a press avail afterward. 

*** The Never-Ending Recount, Day 83: In Minnesota today, a three-judge panel will begin hearing Norm Coleman's challenge to overturn Al Franken's 225-vote lead in the state's still-undecided Senate contest. The race, in fact, has now extended a whopping 83 days since Election Day. And given that this trial could last four to six weeks -- and also given that the loser of the trial can appeal to the state Supreme Court -- we might not know until February or March who'll fill this Senate seat. As the AP noted over the weekend, however, legal experts say Coleman faces the bigger challenge at the trial. "His lawyers have to produce proof of the irregularities and inconsistencies that they allege have made the vote tally fatally flawed. And even if the alleged mistakes are corrected, Franken would probably gain some more votes too."

Video: Norm Coleman will challenge the recount that gave Al Franken a 225-vote lead in the Minnesota senate race.

*** More fodder for the RNC? In addition to the controversy over Bill Lynn, the lobbyist whom Obama tapped to work at the Defense Department, the AP is reporting that while there will be no earmarking in the stimulus package at the congressional level, it could happen at the state and local level. "Instead, the money will be doled out according to arcane formulas spelled out in the bill and in some cases based on the decisions of Obama administration officials, governors and state and local agencies that will choose the projects." Close followers of government know that lobbyists at the state level are actually more influential on lawmakers than federal lobbyists are with members of Congress. And even more disconcerting to government watch-doggers, there are fewer watchdogs on state and local lawmakers than there are here in Washington. The question is whether this will catch fire and the transparency promises Obama wants in place on the national level can even be implemented on a state-by-state basis, or even a city-by-city basis. 
 
*** A sense of urgency: We've learned that the full Senate will vote on Tim Geithner's nomination to serve as Obama's Treasury secretary at 6:00 pm ET today. It's possible that Obama and Geithner -- if he's confirmed -- will do something right after the vote to get him sworn in as a way to show a sense of urgency.

*** Stuck in the middle with you? In our final look at some of the challenges facing the GOP, with the RNC chair race taking place this Friday, we examine the GOP's recent trouble with the political center. Obama beat McCain among independents by eight points, 52%-44% (and remember that McCain was perhaps the Republican who has the most appeal to independents and the middle). Moreover, while 49% of adults (including 36% of independents) viewed the Democratic Party favorably in December's NBC/WSJ poll, just 27% of adults (and 18% of independents) said the same about the GOP. And get this -- while 73% of Republicans in that December NBC/WSJ poll view Sarah Palin favorably, only 35% of the nation at large thinks that way. 

Countdown to RNC winter meeting: 2 days
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 127 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 134 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 281 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 645 days

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