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First thoughts: Obama's surprise visit

Obama returns from his surprise visit to Afghanistan… A more combative Obama makes 15 recess appointments… Dems close enthusiasm gap, according to Washington Post poll… Republicans have an enthusiasm gap over the Census, which could possibly cost them congressional seats… Wrapping up Sunday's Crist-vs.-Rubio debate… Wrapping up Palin campaigning against Harry Reid in Searchlight, NV… And Meg Whitman spends $4 per second? Wow.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama's surprise visit: President Obama clearly didn't want the most successful (and consequential) week of his presidency to end. Yesterday, he made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he reportedly pressured Afghan President Karzai and also spoke to U.S. troops. "I want you to understand, there's no visit that I considered more important than this visit," Obama said. "So my main job here today is to say thank you on behalf of the entire American people." It was fitting that he ended the week in a military setting, given that the week was perhaps his most combative as president (pushing health care over the finish line, apparently talking tough with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and making his first batch of recess appointments). Obama is set to return to the White House later this morning, and he will sit down for an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, which will air on "TODAY" tomorrow morning.

*** Recess time! Less surprising over the weekend was Obama's decision to make his first recess appointments as president -- 15 of them to be exact, including controversial National Labor Relations Board pick Craig Becker, whose nomination was filibustered last month by Senate Republicans and two Democrats. The recess appointments will be able to serve through 2011 without Senate confirmation. "The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees," Obama said in a statement on Saturday. "But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis." As the New York Times reported, "Mr. Obama's action puts him on a par with Mr. Bush, who had made 15 recess appointments by this point in his presidency… [D]uring the course of his two terms in office, he made a total of 171 recess appointments, although 72 were to part-time positions, according to the Congressional Research Service. President Clinton made 139 recess appointments."

*** Obama's week: Later today, Obama participates in a credentialing ceremony for foreign ambassadors. On Tuesday, in Northern Virginia, he will sign the reconciliation bill (with its fixes to health care and its change in student loans) into law. On Wednesday, he will speak at the Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington. On Thursday, he heads to Portland, ME to promote the health-care law. And on Friday -- on the day the new job numbers come out -- Obama travels to Charlotte, NC to talk about the economy.

*** Closing the enthusiasm gap: As we said on Friday, perhaps the biggest result for Democrats from health care's passage -- at least in the short term -- was energizing a previously ho-hum Democratic base. And now we have poll numbers backing that up. In a new Washington Post survey, 76% of registered Democrats said they were enthusiastic about the upcoming midterms, versus 75% of registered Republicans who said that. While this is just one poll, it's the first we've seen in a long time where Democrats break even with Republicans on such a question. By the way, the poll shows Democrats with a four-point advantage (48%-44%) among registered voters on a generic ballot test.

*** Another enthusiasm gap -- over the Census: Could Republicans' anti-government sentiments end up costing them congressional seats after the Census? Check out this Houston Chronicle article: "As of Friday afternoon, only 27 percent of Texas households had filled in and returned their census forms — well below the national average of 34 percent — according to computer data from the U.S. Census Bureau… In Texas, some of the counties with the lowest census return rates are among the state's most Republican, including Briscoe County in the Panhandle, 8 percent; King County, near Lubbock, 5 percent; Culberson County, near El Paso, 11 percent; and Newton County, in deep East Texas, 18 percent."

*** Crist vs. Rubio: Yesterday's televised Crist-Rubio debate wasn't your normal first debate, where the candidates refrain from engaging. Rubio was really debating the Obama administration more than Crist, casting himself as someone who would stand up to President Obama in the U.S. Senate, a la Jim DeMint. "People are looking for leaders that will go to Washington, D.C. and stand up to this agenda and offer a clear alternative," Rubio said. Crist, meanwhile, described himself as a "pragmatic, commonsense conservative" who would be more of a Lindsey Graham than a DeMint. The current Florida governor also questioned Rubio's commitment to serving the public. "I view public service as a calling, something that you do to try to help other people," Crist said. "Unfortunately, recent news accounts in Florida have come out that indicate, in fact, that Speaker Rubio views public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment. And that's just wrong."

*** Crist's back against the wall: Perhaps the biggest reason why Rubio is leading this GOP primary is because Republicans see opposition to Obama (DeMint-ism) more important than pragmatic conservatism (Graham-ism). In fact, Crist certainly acted like a candidate who is trailing by double digits and has his back against the wall. Was Rubio ready for prime time? Eye of the beholder. What we do know is this election is going to be nasty over the next five months, and the beneficiary might be Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek.

*** Tea time: The AP says that on Saturday, at least 9,000 Tea Party folks gathered in tiny Searchlight, NV -- Harry Reid's hometown -- to hear Sarah Palin speak and to drum up support to defeat Reid in November. Palin told them the big-government, big-debt spending spree of the Senate majority leader, Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is over. 'You're fired!' Palin said." Interestingly, the Washington Post's Cillizza reports that Democratic consultant Craig Varoga has formed a PAC to target candidates who run under the Tea Party banner. "Americans need to confront the dangerous ideas of the tea party movement head on, without any fear, before they gain any additional traction in the legislative process or the 2010 elections," Varoga told Cillizza. More: "Varoga added that the group planned to concentrate its efforts, which are likely to include television and radio ads, on 12 to 15 races where a candidate affiliated with the tea party is running."

*** More midterm news: In California, Meg Whitman has a new TV ad, in which she says that California needs to be run more like a business… Also the San Jose Mercury News (hat tip: Taegan Goddard) reports that Whitman has spent more than $4 per second so far this year. Wow…. And in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn announced that his preferring running mate is Sheila Simon, daughter of the late Paul Simon.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 36 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 43 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 50 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 218 days

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