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First thoughts: Retooling time

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Retooling time: Just askin', but what would be the bigger news today -- if President Obama was re-vamping his health-care pitch or if he decided NOT to re-vamp it? Well, multiple outlets today are reporting about the health-care retool. Politico says that the White House "is putting the final touches" on a new health-care strategy, which will include detailing his health-care demands from Congress in a speech as soon as next week and which won't insist on the so-called public insurance option. However, the White House pushes back a bit against the story, saying it just one of the options being considered. That said, senior White House adviser David Axelrod tells the AP that it's beginning to be time for the White House to put everything together. "The ideas are all there on the table," he said. "Now we are in a new phase, and it's time to pull the strands of these together." By the way, look at the post-Labor Day schedule: It's pretty clear the White House has to do something on health care in first 10 days after Labor Day, because the rest of the month is dominated by the economy, 9/11 anniversary (translation: Afghanistan), UN General Assembly, and the G20. and

*** Debating the public option: That the White House might not be insisting on a public option shouldn't be big news to anyone who has been following the debate over the past few months. Of course, the news is likely to enrage the left. Yesterday, the man who likely will be the new AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, said the labor group won't support any legislation that doesn't contain the public option. (Obama, it turns out, addresses two AFL-CIO audiences in the next two weeks, at their Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati and then in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15.) And tonight, progressive groups like MoveOn are sponsoring vigils across the country demanding the government/public option. But we've asked this question before and we'll ask it again: Why did the left make this the centerpiece of any reform -- more important than insuring more Americans, establishing an insurance exchange, and preventing insurers from denying coverage to those with pre-existing health conditions? In other words, is the left really going to walk from any health-care legislation that does those things but that doesn't contain a public option? Also, why hasn't there been a greater debate over the phrase "public option" -- is it really an obvious description of what those who are for it are advocating? If they had given it another name (say "expanded Medicare"), would it have changed the debate a bit and kept seniors from feeling so concerned?

*** Change you can believe in? As Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker, "If a health-care bill passes this fall, it will be full of compromises: departures from liberal ideals, and fudges about how much it will cost. But anybody who stops fighting for it now is going to spend years repenting. As long as Congress passes, and Obama signs, a law that embodies the principle of universal, government-guaranteed coverage, the country will have achieved an enormous, and previously elusive, advance. Reagan nailed it in 1961: medical care is a core element in the liberal social compact." South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, a Blue Dog, also sums up the polling we've seen on health care, maybe without realizing it: "I want to support necessary change," she said. "But I don't want to support radical change." The real lesson, some say, of the Ted Kennedy legacy? His regret for not taking the health-care deal he could have cut with Richard Nixon in the early '70s.

*** Selling Afghanistan: But if the White House thought selling health care was hard, selling staying in Afghanistan might be harder. Just look at the array of stories TODAY. The New York Times: "Tribal Leaders Say Karzai's Team Forged 23,900 Votes." Another Times headline: "U.N. Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging." The Washington Post: "Taliban is much stronger than the insurgency the U.S. military faced in Iraq." And the Los Angeles Times: "First the votes, now the complaints pile up in Afghanistan."  

*** They've done studies, you know -- 50% of the time, it works every time: As of yesterday, President Obama's approval rating in the Gallup daily tracking poll was 52%, which is close to the 51% in our NBC poll from last month. As Gallup has noted, if Obama falls below 50% in his eighth month on the job, it will be the third-fastest drop below that mark for a new president since World War II. Gerald Ford fell below 50% in his third month, Bill Clinton in his fourth month, Ronald Reagan in his 10th month, Jimmy Carter in his 13th month, Richard Nixon in his 25th month, LBJ in his 29th month, Bush 41 in his 36th month, Bush 43 in his 37th month, and Eisenhower in his 63rd month. Note: Kennedy never fell below 50% before he was assassinated, and George W. Bush was approaching that mark right before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A few things to remember about all the analysis folks will see on polls in the coming days: There are more BAD polls now than ever before; it confuses the issue and lets some folks cherry-pick what they want. The VERY erratic robo-polling firms have added to the confusion like never before.

*** Obama has him where he wants them? This data above tell us a few things. One, Obama has had a rapid drop and that doesn't help his prospects for things like health-care reform. Two, the most recent presidents -- Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43 (right before 9/11) -- have experienced similar drops, suggesting an increased political polarization over the past 20 or so years. Three, taking George W. Bush out of the equation due to 9/11, every president who has ended up winning re-election since 1980 saw his approval rating drop below 50% in his first year. Moral of the story: If your goal is to get re-elected, it's better to have your political struggles early (Clinton, Reagan) rather than later (Bush 41). Kind of like a college football season, right? Better to lose early, than late. So be careful what you read into what Obama's approval rating right now means for his presidency. There's really no correlation between how quickly a president's poll numbers drop and the overall success of his presidency.

*** GOP recruiting and 2010: But here's another byproduct of Obama's declining poll numbers: It's encouraging some Republicans -- who might not have run for office in 2006, 2008, or even three months ago -- from seriously thinking about running for the Senate or House in 2010. Yesterday, we learned that state Sen. Gilbert Baker (R) is going to challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) down in Arkansas. While Lincoln still has be considered the favorite here, and while Baker has a crowded GOP primary to deal with first, it is clear that Republicans are recruiting better candidates than they have in quite some time. Recruiting success in politics doesn't guarantee you'll win the race, but it gives you the opportunity to win. One other sign to watch for in the next few months: If the declining Obama ratings push any DEMOCRATS into retirement. For the GOP, the big difference between now and this point in the '94 cycle is the lack of open-seat opportunities caused by Democratic retirements. Republicans made a lot of their gains in '94 due to retirement, not knocking off incumbents.

*** Another SCOTUS opening next year? According to the AP, "Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has hired fewer law clerks than usual, generating speculation that the leader of the court's liberals will retire next year. If Stevens does step down, he would give President Barack Obama his second high court opening in two years. Obama chose Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the court when Justice David Souter announced his retirement in May." Stevens is 89.

*** Sestak vs. Toomey: Let's debate -- well, kind of. There will be a debate in the Pennsylvania Senate race WITHOUT Arlen Specter. Rep. Joe Sestak (D) will take on former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) at Muhlenberg College at 6:15 pm ET. The topic: health care.

*** More on Rangel: On TODAY this morning, NBC's Lisa Myers asked this question: How did chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Charlie Rangel (D), forget to disclose more than $600,000 in assets and thousands of dollars in income? Myers reported that, per Democratic sources, Speaker Pelosi and the Dem leadership have agreed not to make any decision about Rangel's chairmanship until the investigation is complete. The Ethics Committee is taking a long time, sources tell us, because Rangel's finances are THAT complicated and that, well, messed up. A big factor working in Rangel's favor, though: The next in line for the chairmanship of Ways and Means is Pete Stark, who is, shall we say, a "controversial" old-school liberal. Notice how few House Republicans actually are taking the opportunity to criticize Rangel.

*** Beam me up outta here: Finally, former Rep. Jim Traficant (D) will be released from prison today -- after serving seven years for bribery and other charges. The former Ohio congressman's release will be honored at the local minor league baseball team's game that night in Youngstown, complete with a video of his career on the JumboTron. There will even be a dinner in his honor on Sunday. "We need to tell this guy: 'We still love you, Jim,'" said Linda Kovachik of Boardman, who was an aide in the 17th District congressman's Boardman and Youngstown offices. 

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 62 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 426 days

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