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First thoughts: Here come the ads!

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Here come the ads! As the House begins its month-long August recess, here come the ads on health care. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has announced it's launching an advertising and grassroots offensive on health care targeted at about two dozen House Republicans. Here's a sample of one radio ad: "Health care bills -- every year, the cost goes higher," an announcer says, "making it harder to make ends meet. But year after year, Congressman Charlie Dent (PA) opposed reforms to make health care more affordable. Congressman Dent's gotten nearly $75,000 from the insurance industry while we've gotten stuck with runaway health-care costs. And what do the insurance companies get? Record profits. Call Congressman Dent. Tell him not to side with insurance companies … and start supporting real health care reform." We already know the RNC is up in certain districts, and MoveOn is on the air. The question is, of course: When does the insurance industry jump in, and where?

Video: Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, talks about what's really wrong with America's health care system and why a public option will cost too much and result in the rationing of health care.

*** Mob rule? With the House embarking on its recess, Politico asks this question: Just how unruly will the congressional town halls be? "On the eve of the August recess, members are reporting meetings that have gone terribly awry, marked by angry, sign-carrying mobs and disruptive behavior. In at least one case, a congressman [Dem. Tim Bishop] has stopped holding town hall events because the situation has spiraled so far out of control." Bishop's "decision came on the heels of a June 22 event he held in Setauket, N.Y., in which protesters dominated the meeting by shouting criticisms at the congressman for his positions on energy policy, health care and the bailout of the auto industry. Within an hour of the disruption, police were called in to escort the 59-year-old Democrat — who has held more than 100 town hall meetings since he was elected in 2002 — to his car safely." The angry folks live in both ideological neighborhoods and get emboldened by folks on the internet, radio, and TV. Maybe lawmakers ought to go with the tele-town hall approach, where constituents get asked if they have a question an hour before. The planned stuff only serves as a target for groups to hijack these events. *** CORRECTION *** A Bishop spokesman emails First Read that Politico's story is wrong; Bishop ISN'T ending his town halls. "Congressman Bishop held a public forum with hundreds of seniors earlier this month, a teletownhall with 3500 constituents yesterday, and has town halls, public events and community office hours scheduled for August."

*** Are things getting better? Breaking news from the AP: "The economy dips at a 1 percent pace in the spring, strong sign recession is winding down." But again, the technical end of the recession vs. the actual FEEL for the public is the challenge for the White House.

*** The haves and have-nots: While much attention (and deservedly so) was given to Obama's declining numbers on health care, our NBC/WSJ poll found a clear split between those who have private health insurance and those who don't. Americans who have private insurance disapprove of Obama's job on health care by a 51%-38%. But those who lack insurance approve of his job, 52%-29%. Similarly, those who don't have insurance are much more likely to think Obama's health-care plan is a good idea, while those who have it are more likely to think it's a bad idea. Of course, the folks without insurance are a very small minority of the country. And now the focus of the White House appears exclusively on the insurance industry. This might be better politics as it's something both individuals and businesses might agree on.

*** Still backing Bush?

Here's another interesting number from our poll: 56% said they approved of the reported Bush administration plan to send CIA agents overseas to assassinate senior members of Al Qaeda. When you add that finding to last month's NBC/WSJ result that 52% oppose the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, Republican pollster Bill McInturff observed that still 50%-plus of the American public still back some of the Bush war-on-terror policies.

*** Focus on this: As we mentioned yesterday, one of us attended a focus group of 12 self-described independents that Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted on Wednesday night in Towson, MD, which is just outside of Baltimore. Seven of these independents voted for Obama last November, four voted for McCain, and one voted for Nader. While almost all of the participants were down on the current state of the nation and other American politicians, many of them -- including some who voted for McCain -- had positive things to say about Obama or were hopeful about his presidency. Asked about her opinion about Obama after his first six months in office, Marsha, 59, a McCain voter, responded, "Just hopeful… I just see what's on his plate." Hart observed afterward, "Don't get fooled by the [poll] numbers alone. There is something strong there" regarding attitudes about Obama.

Video: Former Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers and former Press Secretary to Newt Gingrich, Tony Blankley, discuss why President Obama is having such a difficult time selling his health care plan to Congress and the American people.

*** I feel the need … the need for speed (or not): In the focus group, perhaps the biggest concern about Obama was the speed at which he is moving. "I'm very worried about the speed," said Jennifer, 48, another McCain voter. There also was concern about Obama's strength and backbone. When Hart asked the participants to fill in the blank to the phrase "Obama's spine is made of …," some of the McCain voters responded with "plastic" and "sand." Those who voted for Obama said "steel" and "metal." This also was interesting: Despite the C.W. that Obama is overexposing himself, many of participants said they liked his press conferences and his town halls. And another thing: Many of the participants referred to Obama as "Barack," which Hart found interesting, saying it suggested a comfort and ease with the president.

*** Word association time: Hart also played a word association game with the 12 independents in attendance. On Obama: "scary," "worried," "brilliant," "idealistic," "afraid," "busy," "straightforward." On Rush Limbaugh: "mouthy," "I don't like him," "too outspoken," "entertaining." On Hillary Clinton: "smart," "intelligent," "relentless," "great," "energetic." On John McCain: "over the hill," "disappointing," "fighter," "strong-willed," "still trying." On Joe Biden: "hopeful," "embarrassing," "nice-looking," "useless." On Nancy Pelosi: "pushy," "strong-willed," "disrespectful," "self-centered," "I like her," "disrespectful," "strong-willed," "sneaky." On Sarah Palin: "If I wanted a stripper for president… She is not real bright," "future," "I'm glad she resigned," "average," "idiot," "nutty," "go away," "she has a good speaking voice," "celebrity," "comical." On Michelle Obama: "beautiful," "educated," "great role model," "improved," "good role model," "role model." On the Democratic Party: "divided," "splitting." And on the GOP: "a long way to go," "lacking leaders," "cronyism," "too conservative," "not tackling the issues."

*** That's not my name! Finally, during the focus group, no one knew who Mitch McConnell was, although someone did ask, "Is he a senator?" Only two of the participants knew who Harry Reid was. When asked who they did NOT want to sit next to on a long flight, six of the 12 said Limbaugh, four said Pelosi, and two said Palin. And when asked who they WOULD like to sit next to, eight said Obama, two said McCain, one said Hillary, and one said Rush.

*** Another Palin scheduling snafu: Who else saw this coming? According to NBC's Norah O'Donnell, ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is NOT going to attend that speaking event in California next month. "As repeatedly stated to several in the media over the last week, former Gov. Sarah Palin is not committed to attend the Simi Valley Republican Women's event at the Reagan Library and in fact is not attending the event," Palin spokeswoman Meg Stapleton told O'Donnell. "Neither the governor's state staff nor SarahPAC has ever committed to attending this event or speaking at this event, and even requested that the governor's name be removed from the invitation several weeks ago. The governor has other work and commitments to take care of at that time. She looks forward to visiting her friends in California soon." This cancellation, of course, comes after a similar "she will attend, now she won't" situation played out for last spring's NRCC/NRSC dinner.

*** The war in Afghanistan: Are things falling apart in Afghanistan? Perhaps not, but there is HARDLY any good news coming from this war zone right now. July saw the highest number of U.S. casualties there. And here's this AP story "U.S. agencies handling reconstruction work in Afghanistan lack direction and communication, problems that risk wasting U.S. tax dollars, says the special inspector general overseeing tens of billions of dollars worth of projects." A word of warning to the administration: When we did our latest NBC/WSJ, we re-interviewed a number of respondents, and here was one quote from an Obama supporter that ended up on the TV cutting room floor but is appropriate. "I'm sorry that now we're in another war. We were in Iraq, you know, we were pulling back and now, we're in Afghanistan. Do we really need another war? I understand that yes, the president is trying to go after Al-Qaeda but do we need to be yet in another war where we're spending billions of dollars every day or every month?" And remember, this is an Obama SUPPORTER!?!?!  There won't be the same public patience on Afghanistan as there was on Iraq even though, logically, one would assume differently since there is near universal agreement that Afghanistan is home to more of our enemies. 

*** The Blair House Project: At 6:15 pm ET at the Blair House (near the White House), President Obama and Vice President Biden begin huddling with the administration's cabinet secretaries to assess their first six months in office. CEOs hold these kinds of retreats all the time to identify what's working and what's not. So what's working and what's not? And who should/will be put on notice by the president at this retreat?

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 95 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 459 days

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