From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Enter Kathleen Sebelius: The tone of Obama's health-care week gets set today when the president formally introduces his second choice for HHS secretary: Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Expect Obama to talk about her ability to work across party lines (she has a Republican lieutenant governor (CLARIFICATION: Sebelius' lieutenant governor was a Republican, but switched parties in 2006 to run as a Democrat), and her husband's father was a Republican congressman), as well as her experience dealing with state health-care issues. But what's going to matter most? Her relationship with one man: Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, who is going to be the single-most important person on the Hill in crafting any health-care legislation. For those wondering if there will still be a desk at the White House for Sebelius -- a la the Daschle arrangement -- don't bet on it. There are a lot of players in the White House who are going to be involved in the details of health care, including Rahm Emanuel (who will get a lot of back channel advice from the non-Hollywood brother); Peter Orszag (who has set the table for health care as a budget crisis); and Larry Summers (whose shop wasn't thrilled with giving up health care to Daschle in the first place). Also, as we've written before, a sidebar story to Sebelius' confirmation will be a heated debate over abortion. Look for the pro-life community to start test-driving some of its abortion messages on this confirmation hearing as a prelude to the fight over Obama's first SCOTUS nomination.
*** The White House gets its sea legs: We shouldn't let last week go without acknowledging how well the Obama White House dominated the messaging of each and every day last week, and also stayed on its chosen message. No outside event disrupted the administration's day-to-day goals last week -- the fiscal responsibility summit on Monday, the address to Congress on Tuesday, the budget on Thursday, and the Iraq pullout announcement on Friday. It was an impressive feat for those who admire the ability of any political shop to walk and chew gum at the same time. The White House, though, is not trying to be nearly as dominant with its message events this week, given that one issue will dominate more than any other: health care.
*** The budget battle: Meanwhile, the initial battle lines over the president's budget seem to be drawn. It started with Obama's radio address on Saturday, when he said: "I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and the lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I." For their part, Republicans want to define everything Obama is doing through big-government prism. By the way, Rahm Emanuel admitted that Obama will sign the omnibus bill unhappily -- because of the earmarks in it -- but apparently warned Congress not to do it again.
*** The straw-man battle: The two parties seem to be engaged in an interesting competition. The Obama White House and Democrats want to define the Republican Party through Rush Limbaugh -- from paid advertising (via the labor-funded Americans United) to Rahm Emanuel, who did his best on Sunday to "honor" Limbaugh's intellectual leadership of the GOP. Meanwhile, the GOP talking point over the weekend was directed at the president's budget, which Republicans defined as the return of big government and the biggest wealth transfer attempt since LBJ or FDR. (As the New York Times' Mark Leibovich also noted, Republicans and conservatives have increasingly compared Obama's actions to socialism and communism. Talk about hyperbole.) Obviously, these straw-men arguments are used as a way to hammer home a message. But who is having more luck right now? Well, it's early, but clearly the White House is ecstatic by how its Limbaugh gambit is working. The talk-show host appeared to have taken the bait by giving the concluding remarks at CPAC. Are any Republicans nervous about having Limbaugh becoming the face of the GOP? RNC chair Michael Steele tried to dismiss Limbaugh over the weekend as nothing more than an "entertainer." We can't wait to hear what Rush thinks of THAT description.
*** Mitt's win: By the way, Mitt Romney finished first in the CPAC presidential-preference straw poll -- his third-straight CPAC victory. Bobby Jindal came in second; Ron Paul and Sarah Palin tied for third; and Newt Gingrich was next, followed by Mike Huckabee. Riddle us this, though: Why does the Romney victory not seem to have a lot of buzz?
*** Focus on the evangelical movement: James Dobson's resignation as head of Focus on the Family was yet another reminder of the aging leadership of the evangelical movement. Pat Robertson and Dobson are now both semi-retired and in their 70s. Jerry Falwell's recent death also left a bully-pulpit vacancy. So who speaks for this very important constituency group? Is it Tony Perkins? Huckabee? Sarah Palin? Rick Warren? There's no go-to person right now. We've always wondered what would have happened had Huckabee chosen to stay in the religious side of the evangelical movement rather than move into elective politics. Our guess: He'd be the go-to voice of the movement. He still may be, but he clearly has the presidential bug to get out of his system. In the meantime, all the names above will have some say over the next few years.
*** A diplomatic answer: Was there a more fascinating moment over the weekend than watching Defense Secretary Robert Gates answer David Gregory's question comparing working for Obama and Bush? First, Gates' silence was, well, deafening. It took him a while to formulate his answer. He finally went the "analytical" route with Obama, which only plays into the stereotype some have for Dubya "I think that … probably President Obama is, is somewhat more analytical, and, and, he makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue," he said. Gates' response should keep liberal columnists in business for the next few days. Given the difficult question to answer, we admire Gates' diplomatic response. Heck, maybe Gates has another job in mind after his stint at DOD is done: Secretary of State. (That's a joke Madame Secretary!)
*** Obama and Afghanistan: We hate looking back so much on a Monday: But we urge folks to take another look at Obama's Iraq speech from Friday. It had everything -- the actual new mission accomplishment, the attempt to politically win over the military community, an outline of how Obama will use the military during his tenure, and a clue as to what's coming next in Afghanistan. It was a rich speech and maybe more memorable than the address he gave to Congress. Specifically on Afghanistan, we want to point folks to this section: "We have learned that America must go to war with clearly defined goals, which is why I've ordered a review of our policy in Afghanistan. We have learned that we must always weigh the costs of action, and communicate those costs candidly to the American people." A few minutes after delivering that speech, Obama said this to PBS' Jim Lehrer: "Now, I can articulate some very clear, minimal goals in Afghanistan, and that is that we make sure that it's not a safe haven for al-Qaida, they are not able to launch attacks of the sort that happened on 9/11 against the American homeland or American interest. How we achieve that initial goal, what kinds of strategies and tactics we need to put in place, I don't think that we've thought it through… Obviously, we haven't been thinking regionally, recognizing that Afghanistan is actually an Afghanistan/Pakistan problem, because right now the militants, the extremists who are attacking U.S. troops are often times coming over the border from Pakistan." Now read between the lines here: Is Obama setting up the possibility that we won't surge into Afghanistan militarily as some might expect? And could our Afghanistan strategy simply be defined by Pakistan, meaning that Pakistan's stability becomes the driving reason behind sticking it out in Afghanistan?
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