From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** In Obama we trust? Maybe now we understand why the RNC was so fired up about last night's town hall. President Obama, while peppered with tough questions about the issue, got an hour on national TV to make the case that he can be trusted to reform the health-care system. Remember, it's not about winning the debate on whether his way is RIGHT; it's about securing the TRUST of skeptical Americans that he'll take their concerns and go about this with care. And on that score, this is where we probably get why so many of the president's opponents were upset. This format was in the president's wheelhouse. Whether you agree with him or not, it's obvious he has a deep grasp of the issue, and no doubt he only helped his cause. Of course, we don't yet know how many folks watched. But the perception that he got into the details most likely is only a help to him, even if those details become unpopular. By the way, it doesn't appear the president committed any news, though some noted that he continued to leave open the door for supporting a tax on some health-care benefits. Also health care remains in today's news as liberals and progressives rally for reform on Capitol Hill at 11:30 am ET.
*** Social conservatism hits rock bottom? These certainly haven't been the best of times for social conservatives. Democrats control the White House and Congress. The problems at home and abroad have drowned out social issues (with congressional Republicans deciding to focus their fire on the economy). And now here's perhaps the biggest embarrassment: In less than two weeks, two of their own -- John Ensign and Mark Sanford -- have admitted to committing adultery. Just five years after it helped re-elect George W. Bush, has social conservatism in American politics hit rock bottom? If so, what does that mean for a political party that has largely tied its fortunes to this movement? As we've said before, infidelity is a bipartisan affair, but Republicans tend to receive more criticism because they more often portray themselves as the party protecting family values and marriage. Yet what happens when one can make the argument that the highest-profile example of family values and marriage -- right now -- isn't a Republican or social conservative, but rather the man who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? The issue for the GOP at this point is convincing grassroots social conservatives not to lose faith. As one of the leading social conservative voices in the party lamented to the New York Times, "I think there is somewhat of an identity crisis in the Republican Party," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, "Are they going to be a party that attracts values voters, and are they going to be the party that lives by those values?"
Video: Governor Mark Sanford, R-SC, resigned today as chair of the Republican Governors Association after admitting his affair with an Argentinean woman. Rachel Maddow is joined by Daily Beast contributor Mark McKinnon to assess the impact on the Republican Party.
*** More on Sanford and 2012: Sticking with Sanford and his troubles, there's lots of analysis this morning focusing on the bad six months the GOP has had -- particularly for Republicans who have tested the 2012 waters (see yesterday's First Read). A few things to watch for: One, who will pick up the mantle of the pure economic conservative/free market libertarian? Two, will grassroots social conservatives start expressing publicly their outrage over Sanford and Ensign and others and become harder to galvanize for the Republican Party as a whole? Three, do folks like Mitt Romney and Haley Barbour end up getting a big perception bump going into 2012 as the establishment looks for grownups who have been around the national political block before? Speaking of Barbour, he was in New Hampshire yesterday, and today he'll be in Des Moines, IA for a GOP dinner. He's an extraordinary fundraiser and helped lead the GOP's comeback to power in 1994, when he served as RNC chairman. On the other hand, he's a former lobbyist and Washington insider, as well as an older white male from the Deep South. By the way, thanks to the Sanford resignation, Barbour now has more excuses to travel nationally as he's now chair of the Republican Governors Association.
*** The "Thugocracy"? The news doesn't look encouraging this morning in Iran. Many experts and media reports are now noting what appears to be the new inevitable: that the Iranian regime's crackdown has been a success. That said, this morning, Iran is not a country that is being viewed as a theocracy -- but a good ol' fashioned dictatorship. Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations (who's not exactly a rhetorical bomb-thrower) called the regime a "thugocracy." And to add evidence to its dictatorship tendencies, check out the L.A. Times report indicating that the TRUE heir apparent to the Supreme Leader is his son. That's how dictatorships act, not republics or democracies. So if the reality on the ground is now that the uprising has been beaten back, what's next for U.S. policy? Right now, it appears any efforts the Obama administration had wanted to make are now on hold (or in the words of one official "on ice"). Robert Gibbs all but said any unilateral efforts were being pushed aside. There is still an open hand on the multi-lateral front (P5+1), but that's always been the case.
Video: There were more reports Wednesday of forceful crackdowns on Iranian protesters as the country's leadership said election results will not be overturned. NBC's Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reports.
Immigration returns: In the past few days, the issues of health care and Iran have dominated Obama's agenda and public statements. But today, he turns his attention to the thorny subject of immigration reform, as he meets with bipartisan members of Congress at 2:00 pm ET to discuss this subject. The meeting comes a day after Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that would write any immigration reform legislation, laid out his principles, and after immigration advocates pressed the Obama White House to make immigration reform a priority -- this year. In a conference call, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento said that the meeting will tell them whether the White House is serious about enacting comprehensive immigration reform or whether it's timid. "Delaying immigration reform will be a mistake," he said, arguing that the country can no longer accept the status quo. The event is a reminder of how this issue has become so difficult for members of both parties. The president won Latinos 2 to 1, has powerful Democratic majorities, and yet admits he might not have the votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform. After today, will Obama use his political capital to make immigration reform happen this year or next?
*** Add energy to the mix, too: Also on the agenda is the issue of energy. As NBC's Mike Viqueira reported last night, the House is now on course to take up its energy bill on Friday, after a deal was struck between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Colin Peterson. The pair appeared at a press conference to announce their agreement. Peterson, Viq notes, had been an influential holdout as he sought the best possible deal for farmers. And today, Pelosi, other Dem leaders, and Al Gore will appear at a press rally at 2:00 pm ET.
*** The rest of Obama's day: In addition to his meeting on immigration, Obama (along with the first lady) participates in a service event at 10:00 am ET at Fort McNair. Per the White House, they will "join hundreds of congressional family members and five national nonprofit organizations … to prepare 15,000 backpacks with books, healthy snacks, frisbees and other items for the children of servicemen and women." In the evening, the First Couple and Vice President Biden will host a luau on the South Lawn for members of Congress and their families. One other item on today's agenda: Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will announce that states have already met the goal of obligating 50% of the highway funds in the stimulus by the June 29 deadline.
Bernanke's tough day? It could get ugly at a House committee hearing today featuring Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, and the markets could very well over-react to what happens in that hearing room. The issue of what role the government played in pushing Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch is going to be front and center. And the criticism of the Republican-appointed Bernanke is going to come from Republicans, while Democrats may sit silent or quietly defend him. We'll see.
*** 2009 watch: And also on Capitol Hill today, New Jersey GOP gubernatorial nominee Chris Christie will appear at 11:00 a.m. ET before the Democratically-controlled House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law to testify about million-dollar no-bid monitoring contracts he awarded while U.S. attorney. Per the Star-Ledger, the panel seeks to reform such "deferred prosecution agreements," like the one Christie gave his former boss John Ashcroft, "worth as much as $52 million," for monitoring a medical device maker Christie was investigating for Medicare fraud. Democrats are desperately hoping that something comes out of today's hearing to help the very vulnerable Jon Corzine.
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 131 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 495 days
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