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First thoughts: Obama on 'TODAY'

In an interview with NBC's Lauer, Obama calls health care law "a critical first step" and "middle of the road"… Says the GOP made a calculated decision to defeat the legislation… Remarks that Afghan President Karzai is listening, but that his progress "is too slow"… Admits that he hasn't changed the polarized political culture in DC yet… USA Today/Gallup poll finds no bounce for Obama, while a CNN poll shows a five-point bump… RNC's problems have turned Steele and the committee into a punching bag… And introducing "Super Senate Tuesday."

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama on 'TODAY': In his first interview since health care's passage, President Obama told NBC's Matt Lauer that the law he signed into law last week -- as well as the reconciliation fixes he signs into law later this morning-- is "a critical first step in making a health-care system that works for all Americans." Obama added, "It's not gonna be the only thing. We're still gonna have adjustments that have to be made to further reduce costs." Asked to respond to the fact that not a single Republican voted for the legislation, he answered, "I think that the Republican Party made a calculated decision, a political decision, that they would not support whatever we did… And I think that's unfortunate because when you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of Republican ideas. I mean, a lot of commentators have said, you know, this is sort of similar to the bill that Mitt Romney … passed in Massachusetts."

*** Middle of the road: "So it's all politics?" Lauer followed up. Obama's reply: "I will say that any objective observer looking at this bill would say that this is a middle-of-the-road centrist approach to providing coverage to people and making sure that we are also reducing costs." More Obama: "What I've tried to say throughout is I will continually reach out to Republicans. I will continue to incorporate their ideas even when they don't vote for the ideas that I've presented. But what I'm not gonna be dissuaded from is us going ahead taking on these big challenges that are critical in terms of America's long-term economic health."

*** Karzai is listening, but progress is too slow: Asked whether Afghanistan President Karzai is getting it on the importance to end the corruption in that country, Obama answered: "I think he is listening, but I think that progress is too slow. And what we've been trying to emphasize is the fierce urgency of now… Look, obviously this is a country that has been stressed in war one way or another for decades now. It's not gonna transform itself overnight. But my hope is that President Karzai can recognize the incredible opportunity he has to be the father of a modern Afghanistan."

*** I haven't solved the political culture in DC yet: And Lauer asked Obama this provocative question: After the divisive health-care debate, do you have a different opinion of the job George W. Bush did in office? "You know, I think that having sat in the Oval Office as president, I am much more sympathetic to all presidents generally," he responded. "Because what is true is that there are big tough decisions that you make. And you know that unless you try to avoid those problems, whatever you decide is gonna make some people happy and some people unhappy. And I think there's things that George Bush has done that were smart and the right thing to do, I've said that before." But then Obama mentioned the polarization in DC -- a topic he even brought up in his speech in Afghanistan on Sunday. "There's something about the political culture here in Washington that is a chronic problem. I haven't solved it yet." It's truly remarkable that the president felt the need to bring up, ON HIS OWN, the polarization in his speech to troops in Afghanistan. Remember, there isn't a heated debate about the war in Afghanistan right now; the president was referring to DOMESTIC politics in his troop speech; more remarkable when framed that way.

*** Where's the bounce? This question was commonly asked during the 2008 presidential campaign, especially after Obama finally defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary season. And it's a question that folks are going to ask after this new USA Today/Gallup poll, which shows Obama with a 47%-50% approval rating after health care's passage. What's more, the survey finds that nearly two-thirds believe that the health overhaul costs too much and that it expands the government's role too much. And: "Half call passage of the bill 'a bad thing' and 47% 'a good thing.' That differs from a one-day USA TODAY poll taken March 22 -- a day after the House approved the legislation -- in which a 49%-40% plurality called the bill 'a good thing.'" On the other hand, however, a new CNN poll shows Obama's approval rising from 46% to 51% since health care's passage. Bottom line: Post-health care, there's, at best, only an improvement in the intensity of the president's support. But the same level of intensity against him is still there.

*** Obama's day: As mentioned above, President Obama signs the health-care reconciliation fixes and also student-loan reform into law at Northern Virginia Community College at 11:05 am. Then, at 3:00 pm, he meets in the Oval Office with French President Sarkozy (which is closed to the press). And at 6:30 pm, Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have dinner with Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni.

*** Risqué Business: Yesterday's news about the RNC -- that it approved (among other things) a $2,000 charge at a sex-themed West Hollywood nightclub -- is just the latest embarrassment to trickle out of the committee in Michael Steele's year-plus tenure as chairman. In fact, Steele's embarrassments/gaffes are now too many to count: Calling abortion a "personal choice"… Saying Rush Limbaugh was an "entertainer" who was "ugly" and "incendiary" (although later apologizing)… Giving paid speeches… Doubting that the GOP could win back control of Congress this year… Going on a book tour (without other GOP officials knowing about it)… And holding the RNC's winter meeting in Hawaii, after criticizing the Obama administration's spending during a recession. To top it off, the usually deep-pocketed RNC has just $9.4 million in the bank after starting with $22 million cash on hand at the beginning of Steele's tenure. 

*** Nightmare on 310 First Street: None of these embarrassments/gaffes, individually, is a problem. But collectively, they've turned Steele and the RNC into an easy target for ridicule. The RNC is supposed to be about two things: money and message. And it hasn't managed either well. The RNC did act as fast as it could in dismissing the staffer who approved of the $2,000 charge. But the episode raises the question of whether Steele is running a tight ship. And while this sex club issue is a "talker" for the chattering class, it also brings attention to what has been lackluster fundraising for the RNC. Already, we've heard plenty of anecdotes of how the three other national GOP committees (RGA, NRSC, and NRCC) raise money against Steele -- at least with big donors. This will only make it easier for them to continue this quiet campaign. It also means Steele's got a big fat target on his head post-midterms, especially if fundraising continues to be mediocre by RNC standards and the GOP comes up short at the ballot box. Of course, this story also has exploded because of the relatively quiet news week. What if the Daily Caller had uncovered this story two weeks ago in the midst of the health care finale?

*** The Steele routine: Politico's Martin makes a very good point: "It has almost become routine now: There is some controversy surrounding Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Republican professionals are embarrassed, some of them gripe about the latest episode and then they move on -- until it happens again. This is not to discount the latest revelations of a consultant's apparent night out at party expense at a not-so-family-friendly West Hollywood nightclub... But like the many other reports involving Steele that make GOP operatives cringe, this one isn't likely to change these political facts of life: He is the party chairman through January of next year and will be so until either a) he resigns or b) he's forced out by a two-thirds vote of the national committee... What will be interesting, though, is what moves are made by party elders after the midterms. Should Steele consider another term, there will almost certainly be an effort to either ease him out pre-emptively or at least find somebody to take him on." 

*** Super Senate Tuesday: Today through May 18, we're going to have daily updates on the fantastic Dem and GOP primaries that will take place that third Tuesday in May -- Lincoln vs. Halter in Arkansas, Grayson vs. Paul in Kentucky, Conway vs. Mongiardo in Kentucky, and Specter vs. Sestak in Pennsylvania. Today's updates: In Arkansas, Bill Halter has a new TV ad portraying himself as the outsider in his race against Blanche Lincoln. ("Washington and Wall Street reject these values and line their pockets with insider deals and stick Arkansas families with the bill. I'm Bill Halter and I approve this message because it's past time we had a Senator who will stand up to special interests and put Arkansas families first."). 

*** More midterm news: In the next two or three weeks, the Arizona Republican Party will decide whether to close its August primary only to Republican voters, a party spokesman tells First Read. (Currently, statewide GOP primaries in Arizona are open to independents and other third-party voters.) This decision could have a BIG impact on the McCain-vs.-Hayworth Senate contest, because limiting the August primary only to Republicans could end up benefiting Hayworth -- despite all that McCain has done to put himself in a position to win in August. By the way, this decision also has an impact on the governor's race. Acting Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is facing a tough primary as well. This decision will tell us just how much influence McCain has inside the STATE party, something that's been a question mark over the years.

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 35 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 42 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries: 49 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 217 days

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