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First thoughts: Tonight's address

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Tonight's address: In what will be the latest in big speeches he has delivered, President Obama tonight will address a joint session of Congress at 9:01 pm ET. Technically, it's not a State of the Union address. But with the televised entry into the chamber, the handshakes, the standing ovations, the primetime slot, and the opposition's official response, there won't be much of a difference. (Bush and Clinton also gave addresses to Congress shortly after their inaugurations.) Aides say the president's speech is expected to outline the rest of his domestic agenda, including health care, education, and energy, as well as his policies towards Iraq and Afghanistan. These aides also note that the speech will echo familiar themes. Will the president feel the need to calm the markets tonight? Sure, most of the address is going to be about domestic priorities that touch the economy, but those topics aren't just about the economic bailout. That said, when Obama talks about health care, education, and energy, he'll do so under the economic umbrella. By the way, national service is also something that will be mentioned in the speech tonight and could be fast-tracked to get Ted Kennedy's maximum involvement.

*** Report card time: Just in time for tonight's address, there are two new report cards -- via Washington Post/ABC and New York Times/CBS polls -- that show Obama has earned high marks in his first month as president. In both surveys, more than six in 10 approve of his job, strong majorities think he's bringing about real change, and majorities approve of the just-passed economic stimulus. As for Republicans, it appears that their unified opposition to the president isn't paying dividends just yet. According to both polls, about three-quarters believe Obama has been trying to work with Republicans, while just 3 in 10 Americans think the GOP is doing the same with the president. Moreover, the WashPo/ABC poll shows that while 50% approve of congressional Democrats, only 38% approve of their Republican counterparts, although that GOP score is up 13 points since the middle of last year. Perhaps the most worrisome number for the GOP in that poll: "Democrats maintain an edge of nearly 2 to 1 over Republicans as the party that Americans prefer to confront 'the big issues' over the next few years." But remember one thing: Republicans need to worry about keeping their remaining customer base happy. And while that isn't playing well right now, do they have another choice? That's the conundrum for the GOP right now.

*** The power of the bully pulpit: One example why Obama is winning the charm war -- and why Republicans are not -- was yesterday's televised Q&A with congressional Democrats, Republicans, and policy experts at the conclusion of his "Fiscal Responsibility Summit." Obama taking questions from these folks resembled a formal White House press conference, or better yet the British prime minister's question hour with Parliament. Writing about yesterday's Q&A, the Washington Post's Stephen Stromberg made this point: the "more Obama makes it seem like he is reaching out, the higher the price the Republicans will have to pay in order to oppose him." The Q&A was a great example of the power of the bully pulpit, and why Obama is winning the bipartisanship argument without necessarily being bipartisan (outside of soliciting GOP opinions without really acting on them).

*** Jindal's rebuttal: Giving tonight's GOP response to Obama's primetime address is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who's already been in the spotlight the past few days -- opposing part of Obama's stimulus and appearing on Meet the Press. Perhaps it's our 24-7 focus on politics, but with all the attention Jindal has received, it's still a bit jarring to us that Jindal has served only about a year as governor and is just 37 years old. As we've noted before, giving the response isn't always a stepping-stone to future success. One past responder who's back in the news: former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who is "likely" to be Obama's Commerce pick.

*** Three times a charm? Speaking of Locke, it appears Obama has settled on the former governor to be his third pick to lead Commerce (following the failed Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg appointments). Locke, a Chinese-American, has done a slew of trade missions to China, particularly when he was governor of Washington, which happens to be a big free-trade state. This is actually a big deal to business since he's a free-trade guy.

*** Another summit? President Obama let slip yesterday that he'll be convening yet another summit at the White House next week -- this one on health care. It was pretty clear yesterday, and will be clearer tonight, that the administration is going to make a strong push to get major health-care legislation passed in the next few months. But don't expect a drawn-out battle. That was one of the lessons that everyone learned from the 1990s… If major health-care legislation isn't passed by the Fourth of July, can it get passed before the Nov. 2010 elections?

*** On Capitol Hill today: Per NBC's Ken Strickland, Senate Democratic leaders say they're optimistic they'll have the 60 votes needed today to advance a bill that would give DC voting rights with a seat in the House of Representatives. (It would also give Utah an additional House seat.) While a successful vote would be a giant step forward for DC voting rights advocates, Strick says, several additional steps remain on both sides of the Capitol and likely before the courts. The vote is procedural, designed to break a filibuster on the bill. Once that hurdle is cleared, the bill then must push its way through the amendment process, which could include contentious measures on things like DC gun rights. What's more, the House has yet to pass its version of the bill, which is slightly different from the Senate version. And even if/when both chambers pass the same bill, it's all but guaranteed to face immediate court challenges on the constitutionality of giving the DC a voting seat in the House. That part to the process could take years to resolve.

*** Remember that Solis confirmation? Strickland also notes that while it seems apparent to Senate Democrats that Hilda Solis will eventually be confirmed as Obama's Labor secretary, Republicans are making Majority Leader Harry Reid jump through hoops to get her there. This morning, Solis' nomination will face a procedural vote on the Senate floor that neither Eric Holder nor Timothy Geithner faced in their somewhat bumpy rides to confirmation. This vote will happen immediately following the one on DC voting rights. Strick adds that Republicans are forcing Reid to muster 60 votes to advance the nomination because of her ties to a pro-labor lobbying group, as well as her support for the contentious Employee Free Choice Act. Reid's office is optimistic that the majority leader will be able to reach an agreement with Republicans for Solis to have her final confirmation vote before week's end, possibly as early as this afternoon.
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