From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Returning to jobs: The Afghanistan issue has dominated American politics this week. And before that was health care. But there is no subject out there more politically potent than jobs and the economy. How do we know? As we wrote earlier this week, one of us attended a focus group in Philadelphia, which was conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. The top concern of the 11 participants (consisting of seven Obama voters and four McCain voters) was clearly the economy, and a discussion about it provided the most gripping part of the focus group. Patricia, a 45-year-old bartender who voted for McCain, described her husband's difficulty getting work as a carpenter, and began to cry when talking about her fear of losing her home. Cheryll, 36, discussed how she, her father, and her brother had all lost their jobs.
*** The blame game: Only one participant in the focus group blamed Obama for the economy, while the others directed their ire at Wall Street (and companies like AIG) or at Congress. Lisa, a 44-year-old Obama voter, said it was her hope that the president would begin focusing on the middle class. "I wish he could do something to focus on the average person," she said. "I have a lot of hope he'll come up with something." After listening to these economic concerns, Hart told reporters that the Obama White House and Congress would be foolish not to do everything in their power to create more jobs. "If they don't do something about unemployment," he said, "they aren't watching what we are watching."
*** Dueling summits: Hence today's dueling jobs summits. The White House's begins around 1:30 pm ET with opening remarks by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Vice President Biden, and the President Obama. Afterward, the participants break out into different discussions on green jobs, small business growth, transportation infrastructure, exports, business competitiveness, and workforce preparation. At 3:45 pm, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Obama will deliver closing remarks. The 130 guests participating at the White House job summit include folks from big business (like Google's Eric Schmidt and Fed-Ex's Fred Smith), small businesses, academia (Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz), and organized labor (the AFL's Richard Trumka and Change to Win's Anna Burger). Meanwhile, at 11:00 am on Capitol Hill, House Republicans will be hosting their own roundtable discussion on jobs. By the way, MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Report," which begins at 1:00 pm ET, features an interview with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) to talk about the jobs summit and her state's battle with unemployment.
*** The White House's goal for the summit: In an interview with NBC News last month, President Obama was asked how this summit would create a job. His answer: "That's not the goal. We're doing all kinds of things to make sure that employment is accelerated. Our first job was to make sure that economic growth was happening, and we're starting to see that now… So what we're seeing now is businesses are starting to invest again, they are starting to be profitable again, but they haven't started hiring again. And so the goal of the jobs summit is figure out are they ways of us accelerating that hiring? And there are a whole range of ideas out there -- we've examined a lot of them. But one of the benefits of convening this group is it gives us chance to talk directly to small businesses, medium size businesses." The president will go to Allentown, PA tomorrow to get a first hand look at a town suffering from job losses. And then next week, he will lay out his plan to accelerate hiring.
*** John McCain, GOP point person on Afghanistan? For those of us who followed nearly every minute of the 2008 presidential campaign, it's fascinating to watch how John McCain has become the GOP point person in arguing that July 2011 is a date certain that will embolden the enemy. For starters, McCain never called for more troops to Afghanistan until July 15, 2008 -- nearly a year after Obama; for McCain, Iraq was the center on the war on terrorism, not Afghanistan. Second, he never put up much a fight when the Iraqi government and Bush White House established a "time horizon" to withdraw from Iraq. And third, he himself talked about timetables during the campaign, saying that Maliki's 16-month timeframe was "a pretty good timetable" and also saying that all U.S. forces would be home from Iraq by 2013. McCain would argue -- rightly -- that his talk about timetables was always tied to conditions on the ground. But that's also true for Obama's July 2011 date. Here's what the president said on Tuesday: "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."
*** What does July 2011 mean? Speaking of that date, however, there has been plenty of confusion over the July 2011 deadline. Senior White House aides clarify -- it is simply a deadline for the start of the withdrawal. Perhaps just one troop comes home in July 2011, but some form of a withdrawal will begin in July 2011. The "conditions based" aspect to this is for the length of time the withdrawal will take. The confusion over this aspect of the president's new Afghanistan strategy is just another instance of the contradictions buried within the policy: It's a surge to expand the war, and it's also a plan to end the war; it's a plan to narrow the focus of the goals in Afghanistan, but also expand the policy to include Pakistan. This is a reminder that every choice the president faced could be described as a bad idea. He ended up choosing the idea that gives the military one last shot at doing it their way.
*** Testimony on Afghanistan, Day 2: Today features another round of congressional testimony on Afghanistan. Beginning at 9:00 am ET, Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then, at 1:00 pm, Gates and Mullen appear in front of the House Armed Services Committee (Clinton won't be there because she's leaving for Brussels for the NATO meetings there). Meanwhile, a senior defense official tells NBC's Courtney Kube that deployment orders have been issued for 1,000 marines and one Army combat aviation unit to deploy to Afghanistan in the coming weeks. The first marines will being arriving on Dec. 16.
*** Hearing crashers: Also on Capitol Hill today, the House Homeland Security Committee holds a congressional hearing on those infamous party crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi. But while the Salahis had no problem crashing a party they weren't invited to, they are refusing to show up to this congressional hearing to which they ACTUALLY HAVE an invite. Chairman Bennie Thompson has now threatened to subpoena the Salahis. Also NOT showing at the hearing, which begins at 10:00 am ET, is White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. White House Press Secretary yesterday gave this rationale for Rogers' no-show: "Based on the separation of powers, staff here don't go to testify in front of Congress." Yet that explanation falls well short of the Obama White House's promise to be more transparent. Yesterday, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina wrote a memo admitting that "the White House did not do everything we could have done to assist the United States Secret Service in ensuring that only invited guests enter the complex."
*** Hearingcast triple play!!! The House Banking Committee is holding a hearing this morning to consider Ben Bernanke's re-nomination as Fed chairman. He might be in for a tough day…
*** Slow going on the Senate health-care bill: Per NBC's Ken Strickland, the Senate has debated its health-care bill for three days. The first Republican and Democratic amendments to the bill were introduced earlier this week. And the CBO released a report showing the Senate bill will not increase premiums for most Americans. Yet because your attention may have been on Afghanistan or those party crashers, Strick adds, it's worth an update on the votes that have taken place since the debate started three days ago. Zero. Zip. Nada. In classic Senate form, Democratic and GOP leaders have not reached an agreement on voting on amendments. Each side blames the other, but both sides say they want to vote on their amendments. Still, the end result is still no votes. Not one. But that changes today with four votes on two topics: Medicare and preventative screenings for women. Meanwhile, Sen. Judd Gregg's letter to GOP colleagues to tie up the debate is getting lots of play.
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