From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama and the Pope: Remember the criticism President Obama received for that Notre Dame commencement address? Remember all the attention it got? Remember those handful of hecklers during the speech? Well, all of it seems like a distant memory -- and, in some ways, an over-politicized story -- as Obama and his family meet with Pope Benedict XVI at 10:15 am ET. As liberal columnist E.J. Dionne and the New York Times note, Obama is expected to receive a much warmer welcome from the Pope than he did from some pro-life Catholics back in May. Why? "No one pretends that the Vatican is at peace with Obama's views on the life issues," Dionne wrote yesterday. "But the pope and many of his advisers also see Obama as a potential ally on such questions as development in the Third World, their shared approach to a quest for peace in the Middle East and the opening of a dialogue with Islam." The pictures we'll see from today's meeting will carry plenty of symbolic significance, especially considering America's sizable Catholic population. and
*** Obama and Africa: The president later heads to Ghana today, and that trip also will carry plenty of symbolic significance -- and could demonstrate why Obama has the opportunity to do something in Africa that just isn't about throwing money at the challenges that continent faces. In fact, at his press conference this morning, Obama told a personal story about his family struggles in Kenya. He mentioned that he still has relatives living in poverty there. And he stressed that Africa's problems didn't have to do with history or colonialism -- but were instead a result of the governmental problems there. "The telling point is when my father traveled to the United States from Kenya to study ... the per capita income of Kenya was higher than South Korea's," he said, per the AP. He also said people in Kenya can't find a job without paying a bribe; that's not the fault of the G8. "If you talk to people on the ground in Africa, certainly in Kenya... they will say that part of the issue is that the institutions are not working for ordinary people," he said. So when Obama says these governments needs to stop blaming the West or stop blaming history, Africa really might listen to Obama.
Video: There is much excitement on the streets in Ghana as the African nation prepares for a visit from President Obama and his family. NBC's Mara Schiavocampo reports.
*** Obama On health care: Also at the press conference, Obama said the United States is closer to health-care reform than at any time in recent history. He said that people to get the good stuff without having to pay for it. "What cannot be denied is that the only way to get a handle on our medium and long-term budget deficits if we deal with health care."
*** A hypothetical question: As we've chronicled this week, the White House has certainly taken its lumps over the economy and the stimulus. Obama's poll numbers have declined. Republicans have piled on. And some Democrats, predictably, are starting to get nervous and are talking about a second stimulus. But let's turn the question around: What happens if the economy begins to improve come summer of 2010? Will Obama's poll numbers bounce back up? Will Republicans find themselves on the defensive? And will Democrats feel better about their prospects in 2010? This is a hypothetical question, of course. As GOP strategist Kevin Madden tells First Read, "If grandma had a beard, she'd be grandpa." But the hypothetical is instructive in this respect: What truly matters here is how things look in 2010-2012, not right now. Still, Republicans see this as an important time, because a more doubtful public could turn to them and their ideas. "Here is the opportunity for Republicans: The public is listening for a debate," says Republican pollster David Winston.
*** Emphasizing that it would get worse before it got better…: Given that it was unrealistic to expect the stimulus to turn around the economy after four months of being in effect, one smart Democratic strategist tells us that it was a mistake for Obama to stop stressing that things would get worse before they got better. After all, the president made that point plenty during his first two weeks in office. In his inaugural address, he said that "the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met." And at that town hall in Elkhart, IN, Obama said "the road ahead won't be easy. This crisis has been a long time in the making. We're not going to turn it around overnight. Recovery will likely be measured in years, not weeks or months."
*** … and then not: Yet weeks later, Obama was no longer emphasizing that things would get worse before they got better. A possible reason: The Dow Jones was sinking, and he was getting criticism for being too pessimistic about the economy. "With your help, we passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan -- the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history," he told the AFL-CIO on March 3 (when the Dow was at 6,700). "It will create or save three and a half million jobs over the next two years, and it will do so by putting Americans to work doing the work that America needs done." And here he was on March 12 (when the Dow was at 7,100) addressing the Business Roundtable: "That's why we've already passed a recovery plan that will save and create 3.5 million jobs over the next two years, more than 90 percent of which will be located in the private sector -- a plan that will also give 95 percent of working families a tax cut that begins by April 1st."
*** Biden fights back: But yesterday in Ohio, at a campaign-style event, Vice President Biden asked the public for patience. "Remember, we're only 140 days into this deal. It's supposed to take 18 months," he said, per the Washington Post. And then he delivered this rebuke to GOP critics: "Would they do nothing?" A case can be made that Biden's "misread" remark sparked this week's headaches for the White House over the stimulus, so it's perhaps fitting that he was dispatched to Ohio to fight back.
Video: Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., talks about Vice President Joe Biden's comments that without the Stimulus Act saving and creating jobs, the unemployment rate would be severely worse than the 6.88 million record-high it has now reached.
*** Just askin': By the way, how has it gotten lost in the public debate that about 40% of the stimulus consisted of tax cuts?
*** AIG is back in the news: Another headache for the Obama White House? The Washington Post: "American International Group is preparing to pay millions of dollars more in bonuses to several dozen top corporate executives after an earlier round of payments four months ago set off a national furor... AIG doesn't actually need the permission of Kenneth R. Feinberg, who President Obama appointed last month to oversee the compensation of top executives at seven firms that have received large federal bailouts. But officials at AIG, whose federal rescue package stands at $180 billion, have been reluctant to move forward without political cover from the government."
*** The em-Burris-ment is over? NBC News has confirmed that, at 3:00 pm ET today in Chicago, Illinois Sen. Roland Burris (D) is expected to announce that he won't run for re-election in 2010. The news is hardly a surprise given his weak political standing as a result of the Blago scandal and also his inability to raise money. The Blago scandal -- as well as state Attorney General Lisa Madigan's (D) decision not to run, and Rep. Mark Kirk's (R) entry into the race -- has given Republicans an excellent opportunity to pick up Obama's Senate seat next year. Of course, you have to ask: Would Democrats even find themselves in this position had Burris said no to Blago, giving incoming Gov. Pat Quinn (D) the ability to appoint a Madigan or an Alexi Giannoulias to the position?
Video: Hardball guest host Lawrence O'Donnell is joined by The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff to assess the implications of the news that Roland Burris will not be seeking reelection.
*** Daddy's money: Finally, all we have to say about the news of Ensign's father giving the Hamptons $96,000 is -- wow. Why isn't this story receiving more attention?
Countdown to Palin Stepping Down: 16 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 116 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 480 days