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First thoughts: Obama in Middle East

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Obama in the Middle East: President Obama has already touched down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he attended a welcoming ceremony with Saudi King Abdullah, and the two hold a bilateral session at 9:20 am ET. (Take note of the king's handshake with a few women in the U.S. delegation.) Per NBC's Scott Foster, Riyadh was a last-minute addition to the trip, which White House officials say will give the president the chance to meet face to face with a strategic partner in the region. Likely on the agenda: energy, Middle East Peace, Iran, and the recent fighting between the Taliban and security forces in Pakistan. On the face of it, the president's first trek to the Middle East can't be anything but successful, right? Maybe. While this trip is billed as a conversation-starter of sorts, there's the question of whether the administration should ask more our Arab allies than talking. Talk is nothing new when it comes to key issues in the Middle East, and the Obama White House knows this -- which is why they need to see things jump started. While the president won't say this on the record, there are indications that the administration would like to see real progress made in the next two years on both the Israeli-Palestinian front, as well as with Iran. The longer it takes, the more likely any deals will get derailed. As confident as the president is with his ability to get warring factions to start talking, he did get a quick lesson in Middle East diplomacy when the Saudis reminded the White House that Obama can't address the Muslim world by just visiting Cairo; he needed to pay the respect the Saudis believe they deserve as the protector of Islam's holiest sites.

*** Today's question: Will the Saudi side acknowledge they are more concerned about Iran's ambitions than Israel's? According to the president in an interview with the New York Times' Tom Friedman, that is the case with some key Arab allies and while he didn't name Saudi Arabia, it was certainly implied.

*** The Speech: Of course, the big Middle East event will take place tomorrow, when Obama delivers his speech in Cairo, Egypt about the U.S. and its relations with the Muslim world. During the early days of the presidential campaign, in August 2007, Obama promised he would, if elected, give such speech in his first 100 days as president. He technically fulfilled his promise when he spoke in Turkey back in April, but the White House considers the one tomorrow to be THE speech. Here's what Obama said when he made his promise in 2007: "I will make clear that we are not at war with Islam, that we will stand with those who are willing to stand up for their future, and that we need their effort to defeat the prophets of hate and violence. I will speak directly to that child who looks up at that helicopter, and my message will be clear: 'You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.'" Breaking news: Obama's speech comes as Osama bin Laden has said in a new recording that Obama and his administration "have planted seeds for hatred and revenge against America," Reuters reports.

Video: Hoping to improve U.S. relations with the Arab and Islamic world, Obama arrived in the Middle East amid fresh threats from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. NBC's Chuck Todd reports from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

*** Downplaying expectations: By the way, have the expectations for Obama's Cairo speech already gotten out of hand? Can he both please the Muslim world AND the Israelis AND the American public? Good luck with that! In an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, however, Obama tried his best to downplay expectations. "After all, one speech is not gonna transform very real policy differences and some very difficult issues surrounding the Middle East and-relationship between Islam and the West." He added, "But I am confident that we're in a moment where, in Islamic countries, I think there's a recognition that the path of extremism is not actually gonna deliver a better life for people. I think there's a recognition that simply being anti-American is not gonna solve their problems."

*** Sotomayor on 'Latina' and abortion: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor returns to Capitol Hill for a second day of meetings with Democratic and Republican senators. The list, per NBC's Dax Tejera: Sheldon Whitehouse (at 9:30 am ET), Barbara Mikulski (10:15 am), Lindsey Graham (11:45 am), Ben Cardin (12:30 pm), Judd Gregg (2:30 pm), Herb Kohl (3:45 pm), Ron Wyden (4:30 pm), Olympia Snowe (5:15 pm), and Chuck Schumer (6:00 pm). Late yesterday, we discovered that Sotomayor -- following Obama's script from Friday -- admitted that her "wise Latina woman" remark was a "poor choice of words," NBC's Ken Strickland and Winston Wilde report. It was Sen. Dianne Feinstein who got this admission from Sotomayor yesterday. As Feinstein told reporters, "She said, 'You know, obviously it's a poor choice of words. If you went on and read the rest of my speech, you wouldn't be concerned about it.' But, it was just a poor choice of words." NBC's Strickland and Wilde also note that Feinstein was more than comfortable with Sotomayor's take on the law surrounding Roe v. Wade. "I think she's a woman who's well steeped in the law, and well steeped in precedent. And, I believe that she has a real respect for precedent, and she was not just saying that." In the context of abortion, "precedent" has long been code for accepting the ruling of Roe v. Wade.

Video: According to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, Sotomayor clarified her controversial remarks from 2001, saying that no matter what their background may be, all judges have to "follow the law." NBC's Brian Williams reports.

*** Sessions' gaffe: Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, appeared to have committed a gaffe yesterday, when he remarked that there's no need to rush the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, NBC's Pete Williams notes. "We have a good advantage in that Justice Souter's resignation doesn't take effect until October 5, when the term ends," he said. "And I do think that gives us the ability to take our time and do it right." Uh, there's one little problem with that statement, as Williams points out. When Souter announced his retirement, he said it would occur at the end of the court's term -- which is in June or July.

*** Another Republican joining Team Obama: Is there anything worse for the NRCC than having an ex-DCCC chairman as the White House chief of staff? We're sure the president and Rahm Emanuel believed Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) was very qualified for the job of Army secretary, but talk about rubbing salt in the GOP's Northeastern wounds. The good news for the NRCC: Expectations are with the Dems at this point. The bad news: Lots of wasted money on another special election, and the NRCC (which is off to a good fundraising start) can't afford the financial distraction. Obama isn't just trying to win over Republican moderates in the electorate; he's also trying to pick off any moderates the party has and tuck them in his administration: LaHood, McHugh, Huntsman, Specter… This really is starting to look like what Reagan did with conservative Democrats in the early '80s…

*** No rest for the weary: So apparently Obama told House and Senate Democrats yesterday that he wants a health-care reform bill through both houses of Congress before the August recess. Seriously? That schedule means you'll have the conference debate in September and the bill on the president's desk in October. It's quite ambitious given that the president also wants the Senate to confirm Sotomayor by the August recess as well. And has he brought up energy? Of course, the House may get an energy bill soon, but will the Senate follow suit? Bottom line: It appears the White House has signaled its summer priorities: health care and Sotomayor. This could work in the White House's favor this way: Republicans may not have the energy to battle the White House on both fronts. Something will have to give, right? As for the health-care plan itself, the president said he supported a public option, which probably means fewer Republicans will climb aboard. Then again, this could be a negotiating ploy. Just as interesting, according to Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, the president indicated possible support for the idea of taxing health-care benefits as a way to pay for the reform. Of course, Candidate Obama beat up Candidate McCain hard over that exact idea. Will the president duck the flip-flop label if he ends up signing a bill that contains that idea?

*** It's Christie vs. Corzine: As expected, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie easily defeated former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan in yesterday's GOP primary in New Jersey. With 97% of precincts reporting, Christie got 55% of the vote to Lonegan's 42%. Christie's primary victory sets up a general election contest against vulnerable incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, who starts out as the clear underdog. In fact, this is the GOP's best opportunity to win statewide in New Jersey since Christie Todd Whitman won re-election in 1997 (If he wins, will Republicans start looking for anyone named "Christie" to run in New Jersey?) If Corzine triumphs in November, he can thank two things: 1) his Goldman Sachs fortune, although we wonder how much he'll be able to spend in this tough economy; and 2) the Republican Party's brand. Indeed, with Vice President Joe Biden in tow, Corzine delivered a line you'll probably hear plenty between now and the election. "I don't know about you," Corzine said, per the New York Times. "But I'm not about to put my trust in the same people who gave us George Bush, Dick Cheney or John Ashcroft, skyrocketing unemployment, a housing crisis, bank bailouts, and a war in Iraq!" The pressure is on Christie to pull this off, as Corzine has no where to go but up. If he wins, Christie becomes an instant national star thanks to the New York media market and the fact he'll have done something so rare in the Northeast for a Republican: win. 

*** 2012 watch: Announcing yesterday that he wouldn't seek a third term, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) didn't say that he's running for president in 2012. But he sure came close. "I still have a lot of ideas and energy left," he said. "But being governor should not be permanent." He also said this: "I don't know what the future holds for me. I'm not ruling anything in or out." During his news conference, Pawlenty "also made clear that he would follow the directive of the State Supreme Court and ratify whomever it declared the victor in the Senate race between Norm Coleman ... and Al Franken," the New York Times writes. "I'm going to do whatever the court says. If the court directs me to sign that certificate, I will." Over to you, Minnesota Supreme Court.

Countdown to VA Dem primary: 6 days
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