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First thoughts: Still weeks away?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Still weeks away? In an interview with one of us from Beijing, President Obama said he was possibly still weeks away from making an announcement on Afghanistan. "I will announce my decision over the next several weeks… I'm confident that at the end of this process we will be able to present to the American people in very clear terms what exactly is at stake what we intend to do, how we're going to succeed, how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take. And I think that's what owed the American people, because frankly over the last several years that's not what they've gotten." He also said that reducing the number of troops in the short term is NOT an option. "Part of … the task here is making sure that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable so that we can make that hand off. So my goal is … creating a situation in which our footprint is smaller and Afghan security forces can do the job of keeping their country together." Will his decision end the war? He replied, "This decision will put us on a path towards ending the war."

*** On Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: The president gave a tough response about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when he was asked why some might be offended that a terrorist gets the same legal protections than an American citizen gets. "I don't think it will be offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him." When pressed whether he was already prejudging the verdict, Obama replied, "What I said was people will not be offended if that's the outcome. I'm not pre-judging; I'm not going to be in that courtroom. That's the job of prosecutors, the judge, and the jury. What I'm absolutely clear about is that I have complete confidence in the American people and our legal traditions and the prosecutors, the tough prosecutors from New York who specialize in terrorism." (At 11:15 am ET, Rudy Giuliani holds a conference call, sponsored by the RNC, to once again criticize the administration decision to try KSM and others in federal court.)

: President Obama talks about his decision on a new Afghanistan strategy, the planned trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a growing list of missed White House deadlines.

*** On health care, the jobs summit, and his weight: Also in the interview, Obama said he expected to sign a health-care bill into law before the State of the Union next year. But when asked if that signing would happen this year, he answered, "You will not hear that from me." When asked how next month's job summit will create jobs, he replied, "The goal of the jobs summit is to figure out -- are they ways of us accelerating that hiring? And there are a whole range of ideas out there… One of the benefits of convening this group is it gives us chance to talk directly to small businesses, medium-size businesses, the main drivers of employment." And he laughed off speculation about any apparent weight loss, but said the burden of the office weighs on him. "My weight fluctuates about five pounds; it has for the last 30 years. It's unchanging. I still wear the same stuff when I got married 17 years ago." He added, "Everyday I wake up thinking how can I give those folks who are out of work right now a job; how can I make sure that people who don't have health care get health care; how can I make sure that I'm doing right by those young men and women who are in Afghanistan. And I would be lying if I said that those aren't weighted questions that I carry around on my shoulders every day."

*** A tough weekend for the White House? Both the New York Times and Washington Post have critical takes of what Obama has been able to accomplish in China (so far), which could lead to some tough post-mortems this weekend. Here's the Times: "In six hours of meetings, at two dinners and during a stilted 30-minute news conference in which President Hu Jintao did not allow questions, President Obama was confronted, on his first visit, with a fast-rising China more willing to say no to the United States." And here's the Post: "President Obama has emerged from his first trip to China with no big breakthroughs on important issues, such as Iran's nuclear program or China's currency." Obama has arrived on the last leg of his Asia trip -- South Korea.

*** CBO numbers finally come out today? Speaking of health care, the latest guidance from a key Senate leadership aide is they expect to get the Congressional Budget Office numbers today on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's health-care bill, NBC's Ken Strickland notes. The source wouldn't call it definitive but said, "Expect them to come out [today]." Also, as has been reported, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) today becomes the longest-serving member of Congress -- ever. Strickland says that Sens. Reid, Mitch McConnell, and Jay Rockefeller will speak about the milestone later this morning.

*** My, how things change: When GOP governors huddled at the annual Republican Governors Association meeting a year ago in Miami, the party had just suffered another thumping at the polls, Sarah Palin was the unquestioned star attraction, Tim Pawlenty was urging his party to be more positive and inclusive, and Charlie Crist was seen as a new hope for the GOP. But as this year's RGA meeting begins in earnest today just outside of Austin, TX, things have certainly changed. Republicans are now celebrating their wins earlier this month in New Jersey and Virginia; Palin is no longer in office and is instead selling her controversial memoir; Pawlenty has become a frequent Obama critic and is emphasizing his conservative views; and Charlie Crist (who won't be in attendance) has gone from possible GOP hope to a conservative target in his race for the Senate next year.

*** What to watch: Indeed, at least four stories will be on display here at the RGA meeting, which concludes on Thursday night. One, is the GOP poised for a political comeback? Two, looking ahead to 2012, who are the party's potential presidential possibilities? (Pawlenty, Jindal, RGA Chair Haley Barbour, and Mitch Daniels will be in attendance.) Three, who are their top gubernatorial candidates for the 2010 midterms? (Ohio's John Kasich, Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, and Florida's Bill McCollum will be here.) And four, is there really an ideological split inside the party? (While Palin is selling her book today in Michigan, the RGA will be feting two Republicans who won, in part, by hugging the middle -- Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell.)

*** Then vs. now: It's also worth noting how the GOP rhetoric has changed from last year to this year. Here was Pawlenty a year ago in Miami: "People mostly want to follow positive leaders; they don't want to follow cranks." Here was Jindal: "We can't just be the party of 'No.'" Here was even Palin: "We are the minority party, but let us resolve not to become the negative party." Ironically, becoming the party of "No" has paid dividends -- so far -- for the GOP a year after Obama's historic win. The question to ponder is whether that's a sustainable long-term message for the party.

*** Today's RGA agenda: The public events kick off at 5:30 pm ET with a plenary session entitled "State-Based Solutions." It features Pawlenty, Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kasich, Corbett, Christie, and McDonnell. Then, at 7:00 pm ET, there's a press briefing to discuss the 2009 campaigns. Speakers include RGA Chairman Barbour, McDonnell, Christie, RGA Executive Director Nick Ayers, and GOP pollsters Glen Bolger and Jon Lerner. Finally, at 8:35 pm ET, Perry, Jindal, McDonnell, and Christie speak at a "Victory Barbeque."

*** Palin as Douglas MacArthur -- I shall return: As previously mentioned, Palin-palooza (Day 7, by our count) moves to Grand Rapids, MI, where Palin begins her battleground state book tour. The event takes place from 6:00 pm ET to 9:00 pm ET. Remember that Michigan is the state the McCain camp withdrew from the day of Biden-Palin vice presidential debate. Afterward, Palin went, well, rogue and openly questioned the move. "I want to get back to Michigan and I want to try," she said. Recently, in a posting she made on her Facebook page announcing her book tour dates, Palin quipped, "Last year, I made a promise to the good people of Michigan that I would be back, and now I'm keeping that promise." By the way, Grand Rapids is in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District, which McCain narrowly won in the 2008 Election. It's represented by a Republican in Congress, who won the seat in '08, 61%-35%.

*** The scene in Grand Rapids: NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who's on the ground in Grand Rapids, says that 1,500 people camped out in the mall there for an opportunity to see Palin later tonight. Mitchell adds that the people are hard-core supporters, who call her a "maverick" and think she can be president. They're also angry about the recent Newsweek cover, saying that it's sexist and inappropriate for a former VP nominee.

Countdown to MA Special Primary: 20 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 62 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 349 days

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