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First thoughts: Back to work

Washington returns to work… Team Obama repeats a pattern from the campaign of swinging and missing on its initial response to a troubling story, then busting out a single on the next pitch… David Brooks on the fallacy of expecting government perfection in an imperfect world… A "decade of missteps" regarding U.S. policy in Yemen… Playing "ping-pong" with the health-care bill… And profiling the Rick Perry vs. Kay Bailey Hutchison primary that takes place on March 2.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Back to work: After a two-week vacation -- or, more aptly, a quasi-vacation given the failed Christmas Day terrorist plot -- we're all back at work in Washington. President Obama returns to the White House around 11:45 am ET. The House and Senate come back to work tomorrow (although it's a pro forma session). And your morning First Read dispatch is back, too. There are three political stories to follow after the vacation break: 1) reconciling the Senate and House health-care bills; 2) hammering out the details of a jobs bill; and 3) dealing with the aftermath of the failed terrorist attack. It's important to remember, however, that the issue of the moment -- the failed terrorist attack -- doesn't suddenly become THE issue of 2010. In fact, more likely than not, the main political issue this year will be the economy. And that reality will probably hit Washington on Friday, when the new job numbers come out. Still, the failed attack over Christmas is a reminder that terror can jump up in importance at any time, upsetting the agenda instantaneously as it did over the last 10 days.

*** If at first you don't succeed, try, try again: During the presidential campaign, Team Obama often displayed this pattern when dealing with a troubling story: They swung and missed on the first pitch or two (bad first day response), then singled up the middle on the following pitch (adequate response), and finally, in many cases, scored (truly found their stride). Some examples that come to mind: Jeremiah Wright and the "bitter" controversy. And this pattern reared its head again regarding the failed terrorist attack. Compare Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's "the system worked" and even the president's initial statement on the failed attack, to John Brennan's strong performance on "Meet" yesterday and Obama's equally strong weekly address on Saturday and his SECOND statement last week when he said there were "human and systemic failures." As for Napolitano, she definitely has taken a hit from this episode, though the White House believes it was an unfair hit. (Over the weekend, Maureen Dowd, who has set the C.W. negatively for many a pol after a bad gaffe a la Napolitano's, wrote a positive piece on the Homeland chief.) One long-term fallout: Did it cost Napolitano a Supreme Court nod?

*** Who has job security and who doesn't: While Napolitano is safe in the president's eyes, not everyone in the intel community can assume they have similar job security. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the head of the National Counter-terrorism Center Michael Leiter both could find themselves being held accountable, especially if they don't perform up to snuff when Congress holds hearings later this month. For now, we're told the White House is not interested in finding a scapegoat, because as the president said he believes there were "systemic" failures as much as their were "human" ones. But if there's a smoking gun of ineptness, then the president is NOT going to be afraid to make a change. For now, though, it's all about the review. Meanwhile, the New York Times magazine publishes a brand-new piece entitled "Inside Obama's War on Terrorism." 

*** Expecting perfection in an imperfect world: On Friday, following the political back-and-forth over the failed terrorist attack, David Brooks wrote a thought-provoking column wondering why Americans expect perfection from their government when they don't expect of it of their friends, families, or colleagues. "For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action… But we shouldn't imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don't have to lose our heads every time they do." Of course, the reason why perfection is demanded nowadays is due, in part, to the way American politics is practiced, with both sides ready to pounce on any perceivable shortcoming. In this toxic political environment, is it even possible to have a unified national security strategy? 

*** A 'decade of missteps': As we've chronicled, Republicans from Dick Cheney to Pete Hoekstra have been quick to blame Democrats and President Obama's policies for the Christmas Day attack. But consider this sober story from Sunday's Washington Post, which blames a "decade of missteps" regarding our policy in Yemen since the U.S.S Cole bombing in October 2000 (this covers THREE administrations, folks). The U.S. has done "little to address the root causes of militancy," the Post said, citing Yemeni officials and analysts. And the war in Iraq is clearly seen as a distraction: "By 2003, the United States was focused on the Iraq war and appeared more intent on fighting corruption and promoting democracy in Yemen than on tackling al-Qaeda, experts said." Would these GOP critics acknowledge these "missteps"? By the way, the White House believes it has a good story to tell on Yemen and on terrorism in general, despite what happened on Christmas. Don't be surprised if they get a tad more "chest thumping" on the issue over the next few weeks. The list of dead al Qaeda leaders this year is quite long.

*** Will repeating the same old rhetoric work? Speaking of Cheney and Hoekstra… As much as the Obama administration got its initial response to the failed terrorist attack wrong, the Republican Party's response -- overreaching in trying to politicize the story -- might have been worse. Indeed, one gets the sense many Republicans believe this, as the GOP's critical rhetoric was dramatically toned down on Sunday. Even Jim DeMint on TODAY was tepid in his criticism. The initial Cheney/House GOP outburst is actually a reminder of just how great the challenge is for the GOP right now: The country has an open mind to an alternative to the Dems/Obama, but does the public want to go to the same old folks, who are simply repeating the same old rhetoric we've heard over the past eight years? Also, we'll ask this question: When is the Republican Party going to be FOR something, rather than AGAINST it, demonstrating that it's more than an opposition party? To make the case to take control of Congress, they are going to have to lay out an agenda at some point.

*** Bill pong: All the attention on failed terrorist attack, as well as the likely attention on the economy this Friday, has placed the health-care debate on the backburner. And that might be the best thing to happen for the Dems and the Obama administration, because they can wrap it up away from the political spotlight. Per The New Republic's Jon Cohn, "House and Senate Democrats are 'almost certain' to negotiate informally rather than convene a formal conference committee. Doing so would allow Democrats to avoid a series of procedural steps--not least among them, a series of special motions in the Senate, each requiring a vote with full debate--that Republicans could use to stall deliberations, just as they did in November and December. Cohn adds that the reconciliation will come via a game of legislative ping-pong. "With ping-ponging, the chambers send legislation back and forth to one another until they finally have an agreed-upon version of the bill. But even ping-ponging can take different forms and some people use the term generically to refer to any informal negotiations." 

*** The primaries to watch: With the New Year, we officially embark on the nearly one-year political story that is the 2010 midterms. There are several themes we'll be watching: 1) the balance of power in Congress; 2) gauging the political health of Obama and the Democratic Party; and 3) surveying how issues like health care, the economy, and the stimulus are playing across the country. There's a fourth theme that we start examining today -- the entertaining primaries that will take place during the first half of the year, particularly the ideologically charged GOP contests. In the next two weeks, we'll profile what we consider the Top 10 primaries of 2010. Today's look is at the GOP gubernatorial primary in Texas between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

*** Perry vs. Hutchison: The back-and-forth in this contest resembles the annual grudge match in college football between Texas and Texas A&M -- and maybe that shouldn't be a surprise given that Perry is an Aggie and Hutchison is a Longhorn. Besides the campaign combat, perhaps the most striking development of the primary is that the more moderate Hutchison has been trying to outflank Perry from the right, hitting him on immigration, the stimulus, and even ACORN. Where Perry probably hits Hutchison: the senator's relatively moderate record on abortion. As Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report puts it, "It might be one of the top-five nastiest primaries in history." Wow. The primary takes place March 2, which just happens to be Texas Independence Day.   

Countdown to MA Special Election: 15 days
Countdown to IL primary: 29 days
Countdown to TX primary: 57 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 302 days

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