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First thoughts: Another tough week

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Another tough week: It's been another relatively tough week for President Obama. His poll numbers, while still hanging in there, have declined. The Senate now won't meet his deadline to get a health-care bill passed by August. And Wednesday's press conference on health care turned into a controversy over race -- hardly its goal for that evening. Remember when we wrote about how smart the White House has been about multi-tasking, forcing the GOP to aim its fire at several moving targets? Well, guess what: It isn't doing that right now; it's focusing on just one issue: health care. And that has allowed the political opposition and the media to zero in on that one issue. The White House's "clear the decks" mentality is the opposite of what Team Obama bragged about when it came to focusing on more than one big issue at a time. And they are paying a steep political price for it.

Video: Rep John Price, R-Ga., and Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., talk about the proposed government take over on health care and alternative options for changing the 'status quo.'

*** Unity isn't easy under a big tent: Given the news that the Senate won't vote on a bill until after the August recess, today's big pundit debate question on health care is: Why did Obama impose a deadline? The president gave his answer in Ohio yesterday, "If there's not a deadline in Washington, nothing happens… I just want people to keep on working." Still, missing the deadline only underscores the difficulty for this new, big-tent Democratic Party to achieve unity. That includes everyone from Bernie Sanders to Arlen Specter in the Senate, and from Pete Stark and Mike Ross in the House. In fact, it wasn't lost on some of us yesterday that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was on the Hill either begging Blue Dogs or cracking heads -- or both -- to climb aboard with the president. This is the same Emanuel who recruited some of these Blue Dogs to run in these tough districts back in 2005 and 2006, promising them he'd be looking out for their politics, while promoting the idea to reporters that he was finding candidates that "fit their districts."

*** Rahm on the GOP: Speaking of Rahm, don't miss his comments on health care and politics to NPR this morning. "I'm OK with politics, as you well know. You know, today Senator Inhofe, I don't have the exact quote, but basically the thrust of the quote was the political importance of defeating this because of what it would do to President Obama. They're seeing it in political terms, and they've decided that if they can beat the president on health care reform, they've scored a big political victory. But what they've also guaranteed in policy terms is that you have the status quo. I actually appreciate what Senator DeMint said and Senator Inhofe. I'm different than everybody, I'm not going to criticize them. I compliment them. They're honest." The White House needs to have the GOP as its opponent right now, not each other, which is why you'll continue to hear the White House invoke DeMint and Inhofe. But can they convince conservative Democrats that a legislative defeat for the president will end up being a reflection on the whole party?

Video: Speaking at a town-hall style meeting in Shaker Heights, Ohio, President Obama says that he wants health care reform "done by the fall."

*** The bottom line on health care: It's still hard to imagine a scenario where Obama doesn't sign something he calls health-care reform by the end of the year. But this is coming -- at least right now -- at a painful political cost. It could mean future congressional fights become even harder. Or worse, it could become a political nightmare for the administration and they see members lose in 2010. Then again, as Ron Brownstein writes, congressional Democrats could bet on Obama. 

*** More green shoots? There has been one piece of good news for the White House and for its long-term fortunes: the economy. As the Washington Post front-pages, "Companies that a few months ago were too fearful even to project their future earnings are now seeing glimmers of hope in the year ahead. The rate of home sales has risen for three straight months. And the number of people drawing unemployment insurance benefits has fallen back to April levels, having receded for the third straight week." All of that news led the Dow to its highest level since January. In his National Journal column, Charlie Cook wonders whether it's wise for Obama to delay his health-care push until there's even more good economic news -- which might make voters more comfortable with new spending. "Waiting is not a great option for the Democrats, but it may be better than losing one or both of Obama's signature proposals or passing legislation that could trigger a disaster for their party in next year's midterm elections."

*** On Gates/Cambridge: There's an uncomfortable joke at the White House right now: "Thank God for the Henry Louis Gates Jr. story, because it steps on the really bad health care day the president had Thursday." Still, Obama does seem annoyed that this became such a big story, but that's where things are these days on the issue of race. The White House should be thankful for one thing: Sgt. Crowley has not really been a political antagonist. And Republicans, besides a couple of small attempts yesterday, have stayed pretty much out of it.

Video: President Barack Obama's comments on the Gates incident overshadowed his message on health care reform at a crucial moment. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** On to education: Perhaps recognizing that it has been TOO focused on health care, Obama gives a speech on another topic -- education -- at 1:15 pm ET. But he will still meet behind closed doors at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus at 11:30 am.

*** Happy trails to you, until we meet again: Sunday is Sarah Palin's last day as Alaska governor. Her exit comes as a brand-new Washington Post/ABC poll shows her fav/unfav to be 40%-53%, her lowest rating in that survey. What's more, nearly six in 10 (57%) say she does not understand complex issues. According to NBC's Norah O'Donnell and Adam Verdugo, Palin officially becomes a private citizen at 7:00 pm ET on Sunday, when Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell is sworn into office. Palin will deliver a farewell address, and newly minted Gov. Parnell will make remarks as well. The transfer-of-power event, O'Donnell and Verdugo add, takes place in Fairbanks, AK on the port bow of the S.S. Nenana. (Interesting fact: The S.S. Nenana, a riverboat, is nicknamed the "Last Lady of the River," and is the "largest stern-wheeler ever built west of the Mississippi and the second largest wooden vessel in existence," according to the state's website). The handover also occurs during Fairbanks' Golden Days festival, a celebration of the discovery of gold in Fairbanks back in 1902.

*** Jumping ship? Speaking of exits, the office of embattled Nevada Sen. John Ensign officially announced last night that the chief of staff and as his communications director were leaving -- which is never good news for a politician trying to hold on to his job.

*** Hillary Meets he Press: Finally, be sure to tune into "Meet the Press" on Sunday, when NBC's David Gregory has an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, conducted live, for the FULL hour.

Countdown to Palin Stepping Down: 2 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 102 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 466 days

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