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First thoughts: Obama's challenges

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama's challenges: Ever since his national introduction in 2004 and then his presidential win last year, Barack Obama has delivered PLENTY of big speeches. They're now almost too numerous to list -- the keynote at the Democratic convention in Boston, the campaign launch in Springfield, IL, the J-J dinner in Iowa, the address on race in Philadelphia, the acceptance speech at Invesco Field, Grant Park, the inaugural, Cairo, the health-care address to Congress, and Fort Hood. But the latest big speech, tonight's announcement on Afghanistan from West Point at 8:00 pm ET, could very well be his most challenging one. How does he sell a further commitment to a war that Americans are already divided over? As David Corn asked yesterday, how can he declare a war must be won but not proclaim he'll wage it as long as it takes to succeed? And how does he convince a skeptical public that the fragile governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan will begin taking care of their own problems?

*** Where's the patience … and the money? Here's another challenge for President Obama: How does he ask the public for patience in combating al Qaeda more than eight years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The nationalism, solidarity, and unity that existed after 9/11 made it easier for George W. Bush to sell the original deployment to Afghanistan and then Iraq have all but disappeared. It's a more skeptical and war-weary populace that Obama has to win over tonight. And here's another advantage Bush had: He never had to explain how he'd pay for his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Speaking of Bush, there were approximately 35,000 troops in Afghanistan before Obama took office. After the 30,000-plus troops get added, it will mean Obama will have more than doubled the troops that Bush sent. That stat alone makes it harder for Republicans to hit the president hard on this issue. By the way, Dick Cheney's critique today -- blasting Obama for projecting "weakness" -- appears to be odd timing, since this is the day the president is informing the country of a decision to send more troops into harm's way.

*** The details: At an Oval Office meeting late Sunday afternoon, the president officially gave orders to top military commanders to send some additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan (the Washington Post puts the number at 34,000), bringing the total U.S. commitment there to about 100,000 troops. The New York Times says that Obama "spent Monday phoning foreign counterparts, including the leaders of Britain, France and Russia." NBC's Madeleine Haeringer, reporting from Kabul, also confirms that Obama and Afghanistan President Karzai held a one-hour video conference call today to discuss the political, military, and security situation in Afghanistan. In his 30- to 40-minute primetime address tonight, Obama will discuss the mission (to dismantle and destroy al Qaeda and prevent the Taliban from creating a safe haven in the region), the endgame (what benchmarks the Afghan and Pakistani governments must meet, as well as how long the U.S. will be there), and the cost (while he'll avoid the details, aides say he won't avoid discussing the difficulty in finding money to pay for the war). "We can't continue to pretend that this is a cost-free" commitment, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on "TODAY." By the way, the real fireworks on cost could come Wednesday and Thursday, when Secretaries Gates and Clinton testify to Congress about the new strategy.

*** Obama's day: Before heading to West Point, NY later this afternoon, President Obama and Vice President Biden meet with Defense Secretary Gates at 3:00 pm ET (closed press), and then with congressional leaders at 4:00 pm ET (also closed press). The invited leaders include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Minority Leader John Boehner, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sens. John Kerry and John McCain. Gates, Clinton, and Joint Chiefs Chair Mullen will join the president at West Point. Gen. David Petraeus also may attend the speech in person, depending on scheduling. Also, be sure to tune into "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on MSNBC beginning at 1:00 pm ET, which will feature interviews with GOP Sen. Judd Gregg and White House adviser Denis McDonough.
 
*** Philly focus group: How are ordinary Americans viewing tonight's announcement? Last night, one of us attended a focus group in Philadelphia consisting of seven Obama voters and four McCain voters from the Philly area (city and suburbs). About half of the focus group -- some Obama voters but also at least one McCain supporter -- wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, not to add more troops there. When asked what he wanted to hear from the president, one of these folks advocating withdrawal, Victor, 61, who voted for Obama, urged the president to make the connection between Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism. "I want to see him make the case, connect the dots." Another Obama voter wanting withdrawal, Pamela, 59, said she'd be disappointed with the president sending more troops to Afghanistan ("It kind of makes me mad. When does it end?"), but added that it wouldn't impact her overall support for Obama.

*** More from the focus group: Indeed, the war in Afghanistan wasn't the top concern of these Philly voters; the economy and unemployment were. But Democratic pollster Peter Hart -- who conducted the focus group for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center -- said that Afghanistan might not be their top concern now, but it very well could be "100 weeks from now." Other findings from the focus group: Many of the participants (especially the Obama voters) expressed patience with the president on the economy… They were frustrated with Congress (almost all of them giving it C's, D's, or F's)… They LOVED Michelle Obama… All but one DISLIKED Sarah Palin… Some of them grippingly described their personal economic troubles (Cheryll, 36, said that she, her father, and her brother were all laid off, and Patricia, 45, cried when expressing worries that she and her husband would lose their home)… And they blamed corporations (like AIG) and Congress for the economy, not Obama.

*** White House gets good news from the CBO: Turning to domestic politics, the White House and Democrats got some very good news on health care from the Congressional Budget Office yesterday. The CBO said the Senate bill that's being debated "would leave premiums unchanged or slightly lower for the vast majority of Americans, contradicting assertions by the insurance industry that the average family's coverage would rise by thousands of dollars if the proposal became law," according to the Washington Post. The New York Times adds: "Centrist Democrats like Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, whose votes are vital to President Obama's hopes of getting the bill approved, had feared that the measure would drive up costs for people with employer-sponsored coverage. After reading the budget office report, Mr. Bayh said he was reassured on that point."

*** The run-off in Atlanta: Atlanta holds its mayoral run-off election today, and it's likely to be decided along racial lines. The contest pits City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is white, against former state Sen. Kasim Reed, who is black. Norwood won a plurality of the vote (46%) on Nov. 3, but needed 50% to win outright. Reed, who pulled in 36%, split the black vote in a crowded field of other African-American candidates. The city hasn't had a white mayor since 1973.

*** The party crashers speak: Finally, on "TODAY," NBC's Matt Lauer had an exclusive interview with those now-infamous party crashers. They couldn't answer the simple question -- "Who invited you" to the White House state dinner -- saying they are cooperating with probe. They also claimed they have documentation (emails). They couldn't shed any new light on this. It was as if they wanted to trickle out info, using the Secret Service probe as excuse not to give away too much and guarantee more publicity and more attention.

Countdown to MA Special Primary: 7 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 49 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 336 days

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