From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Another busy day: There's so much news today on this busy Thursday. The World Health Organization raised its alert level again, as Fort Worth, TX closed its school system over concerns about the swine flu. The Obama administration is planning to send Chrysler into bankruptcy (and we've just learned that Obama has added a noon speech to his schedule). In the wake of Arlen Specter's defection, Republican lawmakers and officials (including Jeb Bush and John McCain) will today unveil what they're calling the National Council for a New America, which will organize forums for policy debates. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is running robo-calls in Pennsylvania, reminding Democrats there that Arlen Specter backed Bush and won't be an automatic 60th vote in the Senate. And Capt. Richard Phillips, who was rescued from Somali pirates, testifies on Capitol Hill. But we begin with last night's news conference, where President Obama assured the American public that the government was doing everything it can to keep the swine flu from spreading; said the waterboarding the Bush administration practiced was torture (but avoided the "c" word -- "criminal"); stated he was confident that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal wouldn't fall into the Taliban's hands; and -- courtesy of a fun question from the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny -- reflected on what about the presidency has most surprised him, troubled him, enchanted him, and humbled him.
Video: In a press conference marking his first 100 days in office, President Barack Obama says there is still a lot of work to do but that the administration will be "unrelenting" in solving the nation's problems.
*** Ducking abortion and immigration: Yet perhaps the most striking thing to us about last night's press conference was how cleverly Obama ducked the thorny social issues of abortion and immigration. On abortion, he said that passing the Freedom of Choice Act is not his "highest legislative priority." Also, he used language that pro-lifers rarely hear from a pro-choice Democrat: "pro-life" and "moral." And in response to a question about whether Obama would accomplish immigration reform in his first year as president, he answered, "What I hope to happen is that we're able to convene a working group, working with key legislators like Luis Gutierrez and Nydia Velazquez and others to start looking at a framework of how this legislation might be shaped." Translation: It's not happening this year. What this all means is that there won't be tough votes for folks like Heath Shuler or Ben Nelson on Blanche Lincoln on these issues. Unlike what Bill Clinton did to congressional Democrats in 1993, Obama seems determined to not force members of his party to cast tough culture-war votes. The president's political team believes he can keep the congressional Dems on his side if he keeps the tough votes to the economy.
*** Obama, political scientist: For those who opined back in 2005 that the Republican Party was on the verge of a permanent majority, and for those who in 2009 think the same may be true for the Democrats (especially after the Specter news), Obama last night gave some very good advice. "You know, politics in America changes very quick. And I'm a big believer that things are never as good as they seem and never as bad as they seem. You're talking to a guy who was 30 points down in the polls during a primary in Iowa. So I never, I don't believe in crystal balls."
*** Snakes -- er, swine -- on a plane: While the always-careful Obama made little news last night, the same isn't true of his vice president… On TODAY, Biden said he'd advised his family to stay off airlines, even subways, because of the swine flu. "I would tell members of my family, 'I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places right now'. It's not just going to Mexico... It's being in a confined aircraft, where one person sneezes and it goes all the way through the aircraft." An administration official followed up with this background guidance: Biden "was a bit imprecise in simply saying that people are at increased risk for catching the flu if they use mass transportation. As the President said just last night, every American should take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you're sick; and keep your children home from school if they're sick."
Video: TODAY's Matt Lauer talks to Vice President Joe Biden about what the government is doing to stop the spread of the swine flu and President Obama's prime-time news conference.
*** About those three to four million jobs…: We're a tad confused: So all of the pre-stimulus projections made by the president's economic team -- in particular GDP and the unemployment rate -- have all been DRAMATICALLY wrong and yet this morning Biden and again yesterday Christina Romer continued to claim that their job creation projection number (three to four million new jobs) is correct. Just asking: How can all of the actual numbers vs. the projections be so off, but this jobs number be right? And we'll also ask again: How can we actually fact-check a "saved job"? It's a phrase that might have seemed brilliant when the White House came up with it, but is it such a moving target. Will folks buy it when in a year the administration inevitably claims it saved millions of jobs when you can't really account for the number in any statistical way?
*** Targeting Specter: Speaking of Specter, the NRSC yesterday announced that it has launched robo-calls in Pennsylvania to remind Democrats there that Specter wasn't always a Democrat. The call contains this line from George W. Bush: "I'm here to say it as plainly as I can: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate. I can count on this man -- see that's important. He's a firm ally when it matters most. I'm proud to tell you I think he's earned another term as the United States senator." Also in today's GOP news, the AP reports that Republican lawmakers and officials will today unveil the National Council for a New America -- "a series of town hall-style meetings about their ideas for shaping the country. With the backing of the House and Senate GOP leaders, the new group will operate independent from the Republican National Committee and highlight conservative ideas and seek to draw contrasts with President Barack Obama." Anything that gets the GOP talking policy is probably a healthy step. Right now, though, the GOP these days appears as if it's still debating what the basic principles of the party are.
*** Purists vs. big tenters: As we mentioned yesterday, and as the New York Times' Nagourney front-pages today, there's a divide in the Republican Party over Specter's defection. Some believe that the party returning to its conservative roots and discarding the RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) is the best path back to power. Others argue that the GOP needs a bigger tent to get to 218 seats in the House, 51 seats in the Senate, and 50%-plus one in the 2012 presidential race. The good news for us is that we'll likely find an early test to this debate next year with Pat Toomey's candidacy. If the conservative Toomey wins statewide in Pennsylvania -- which Obama won by 10 percentage points last November -- then the Purists will have a VERY strong argument to make. But if Toomey loses, then the Big Tenters will be able to say, "I told you so." Also, don't miss Ohio Sen. George Voinvoich's comment in Politico about the conservative Club for Growth: "I think it's a big problem." Note that Republicans are not just losing a moderate/liberal to the Dems, but they're also losing Voinovich, Martinez, Bond and Gregg -- all non-purists -- to retirement. Lindsey Graham is even more blunt in the New York Times, and he comes from one of the most conservative states in the country "Do you really believe that we lost 18-to-34-year-olds by 19 percent, or we lost Hispanic voters, because we are not conservative enough? No. This is a ridiculous line of thought. The truth is we lost young people because our Republican brand is tainted."
*** Steele in the news: The latest in the news about RNC chairman Michael Steele: "The embattled Republican National Committee chairman angrily returned fire in his fight with current and former officers over control of the GOP's purse strings," the Washington Times reports. "Under attack from conservatives since taking office on Jan. 30, Michael S. Steele on Wednesday blasted a group of members pushing for new checks and balances on the chairman's spending powers, accusing them of a power grab 'scheme.' Speaking of Steele, we offer another stray thought about his very hot statement on Arlen Specter's defection. ("He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.") But wasn't it a bit ironic for Steele to say this, given 1) that he's a Republican from blue Maryland, and 2) that one of his central themes when campaigning for RNC chair was trying to expand the GOP's map in the Northeast? After all, in 2006, it was Steele himself who complained that being a Republican in blue Maryland was a scarlet letter. Just wonderin', but if Steele had won his Senate race in '06, would he have voted for Obama's stimulus?
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 33 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 40 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 187 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 551 days
Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.