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First thoughts: September to remember?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** A September to remember? President Obama is back at work. So is Congress. And it's shaping up to be the busiest September we can remember for an off-year. Here's everything coming up before end of the month: health care, including the president's big speech on the topic tomorrow; the Supreme Court's hearing tomorrow regarding Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (more on that below); the 9/11 anniversary, which will lead to discussion about Afghanistan; the anniversary of Lehman Brothers' fall, which will lead to more discussion about the economy; the G20; UN General Assembly; Middle East peace talks; and Iran talk threats. Whew...

*** Obama's big test: Tomorrow's health-care speech is shaping up to be a big test for President Obama. Financial observer Ron Insana made this observation in an online debate that we thought was worthy of highlighting: "It appears the president is becoming 'Carteresque' in the extreme. It took Carter years to engage in this much waffling and indecision, not to mention a propensity to micromanage the wrong stuff. I rarely, if ever, suggest a premature end to a cycle, but Obama could easily ruin his presidency in the next week with an amateurish move." While Insana might be writing history a wee bit early here, he is getting at something that few people are focusing on: This week is as much a presidential leadership/character test, as it is a debate about health care. How the president takes control of this town this week -- not just health care -- is going to be a tone-setter potentially for how the president runs this town for the rest of his term.

*** Whither the public option: It isn't clear how hard the president will fight for the public option. He will express support for it, as he did in Cincinnati yesterday. "I continue to believe that a public option within that basket of insurance choices will help improve quality and bring down costs," he said. Yet buried in Obama's rah-rah speech was some language that suggests he's going to be asking for leeway from Democrats to get this done. He talked about 80% of agreement (a familiar phrase) and framed the opposition on this as wanting to do "nothing." That's code for, let's get SOMETHING, as the president has said before; don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Still, that isn't stopping the advocates for a public option. Today, at 12:15 pm ET former staffers who worked on Obama's campaign will rally outside the White House in support of the public option.

*** Crunch time for the Gang of Six: A decision on whether three Senate Republicans (Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi, Olympia Snowe) will support a bipartisan proposal for health-care reform may come as early as this afternoon -- if not sooner, NBC's Ken Strickland reports. This past weekend, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus put an offer before the panel's bipartisan Gang of Six and is seeking a response when the group meets today. Baucus' framework, Strick adds, represents most of the ideas that have been previously discussed and reported on during the past months of negotiations. Those ideas have now been packaged into a proposal that cost less that $900 billion and does not increase the deficit. As expected, it does not include a "public option," but instead creates healthcare cooperatives or "co-ops." This is a significant point in the legislative process because Grassley and Enzi must now accept or reject the bipartisan group's work.

*** So why now? Baucus has been taking FOREVER and then suddenly, a few days after the White House announces it's going to begin framing the debate with its own speech Wednesday, Baucus releases his framework. Our sources indicate to us that Baucus sped up the process because he knew the committee, himself included, risked becoming less relevant in the debate if it did NOT have a bill by Wednesday's speech.

*** Move along, folks; nothing to see here: After reading Obama's education speech that the White House released 24 hours before he delivers it at Wakefield (VA) High School at noon ET today, do some Republicans and conservatives -- accused Obama of "socialist" indoctrination" -- have egg on their face? Here's an excerpt of Obama's message today: "Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide." Also: "No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work." And: "The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best." 

*** Fired up, ready to go: Of course, some conservatives argue that it wasn't Obama's education speech they were objecting to; it was the lesson plan focus they didn't like. But that got lost. They may have an ideological issue with the Education Department, but the criticism of the president himself came across as undignified. By the way, the White House is hinting that it plans to fight back more directly on some of the attacks it has faced. Regarding the education speech criticism, for instance, the president and his team believe they need to not brush off these things but start confronting it and using it as an attempt to create a wedge between the political middle and the conservative base. In fact, we're told that the president's feisty tone in Cincy yesterday was a result of the staff pumping him up a bit, or getting him worked up.

*** Van Jones resigns: Speaking of distractions, Glenn Beck got his man -- Van Jones, who resigned from the administration over the weekend. And judging by how Beck responded to the news of the resignation of the mid-level staffer, he won't be satisfied with this scalp. Beck made it sound like he might even have a list of "Who's next," which will embolden defenders of the administration to start focusing on Beck and others. In short, it could be an ugly fall. And it makes us miss the "good old days," when the Wall Street Journal editorial page led the fight to take down some Clinton administration officials with long "Who is Webb Hubbell?" or "Who is Vince Foster?," etc. Those Wall Street Journal editorials were tough, but they did seem to stay within certain boundaries. Are there boundaries now? As for Jones, clearly, that 9/11 stuff made him indefensible and does call into question the White House's vetting process. The irony in all of this: Beck never lost his job for calling Obama a racist, but Jones did…

*** Joe says no: Yesterday, Joseph Kennedy II, RFK's son, said he WOULD NOT run for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. "My father called politics an honorable profession, and I have profound respect for those who choose to advance the causes of social and economic justice in elective office," he said in a statement. "After much consideration, I have decided that the best way for me to contribute to those causes is by continuing my work at Citizens Energy Corporation."

*** Money finds a way: Honest question: If the Roberts Court ends up overturning precedents upholding restrictions on campaign advertisements financed by corporations and unions, can conservatives ever rail against "judicial activism" with a straight face? The Supreme Court -- with newly minted Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- holds a GIGANTIC hearing in this case, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, on Wednesday. All of the hints are there that this Roberts Court might just overturn many of the campaign finance reforms out there that involve corporate spending. What would the unintended consequences of such a decision be? Would it automatically mean we'd see corporate America spend more money in elections? The C.W. says this will help Republicans, but will it? Remember when the soft money ban was supposed to benefit the GOP? Our point is – you just never know. What we do know is that the system would change and, well, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's character in "Jurassic Park," money finds a way.

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 56 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 420 days

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