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First thoughts: Fighting 'powerlessness'

Fighting “powerlessness” and why Obama won’t have a good day on the spill until it’s stopped… How last night’s speech might have played better in the Gulf than it did in D.C. or New York… Did Obama meet the expectations that we (and others) laid out for him?... The president sits down with BP executives at 10:15 am, and they’re still negotiating on the size and scope of the escrow account… Last night’s speech suggests that Obama won’t go for the whole energy/climate change enchilada (which isn’t surprising given the Senate math)… Republicans might have a big problem in Florida, and Angle, Paul, and Kirk haven’t given them good news, either. And Dems have their own issues with Sestak in Pennsylvania and Fisher in Ohio.

*** Fighting 'powerlessness': Here's what may now be an undisputed fact: President Obama isn't going to be perceived as having a "good day" handling this oil spill until the oil stops spewing out of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. As for the pundit hand-wringing over last night’s speech, the New York Times’ Peter Baker probably put it best: Obama has been “fighting his own powerlessness." Everyone is frustrated, everyone is upset. And right now everyone in the Conventional Wisdom world/chattering class, etc. is taking it out on this president, good speech or not. What’s particularly telling is that the pundit class pretty much demanded that the president give last night’s speech (the White House caved to that pressure, perhaps before they had something more to announce), and some of them immediately criticized it. Talk about a no-win situation.

*** Did it play better in the Gulf than it did in D.C.? While the speech might not have played well in D.C. or in New York, we have a feeling that it fared better in Gulf Coast states. Why? You could tell that the president has spent a lot of the time in the Gulf these past few weeks, and that he’s chatted with numerous Gulf residents. In fact, he seemed to channel them in the conclusion of his speech. “This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again,” he said. “What sees us through -- what has always seen us through -- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it. Tonight, we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”

*** Just a little patience: Some folks in the 46 states not touched by this spill may have been wondering, "Huh, why doesn't he have a better plan for plugging the hole." But the people in the four states directly affected by the spill right now, while frustrated, have continually shown more patience for the president on this issue than the rest of the country. You can't find a lot of folks down there who want to beat up the president; they are anxious and frustrated but not angry at HIM. Of course, that could always change if they ever perceive he didn't do something he could have done. By the way, the speech was so Gulf-centric, we have to ask, would the speech have been received better had he given it while in the region. Even if it was contemplated, we're sure it was quickly rejected because of the way Bush's Jackson Square speech was panned, but there's a difference between a bad idea and a good idea with bad execution.

*** Meeting expectations? Also, if Obama’s objectives were to demonstrate to the public that his administration is doing everything possible to mitigate the spill’s impact, to reimburse Gulf residents, and to hold BP’s feet to the fire -- as we said they were in yesterday’s First Read -- it’s hard to say that Obama didn’t meet expectations. "We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes," he said last night. "Tomorrow,” he added, “I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness." And he even drew on the JFK man-to-the-moon rhetoric some were hoping for. "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

*** Still negotiating with BP: Of course, some were wondering why he didn’t give more details. And one area where Obama received particular criticism was not being specific enough about the BP escrow account to reimburse Gulf residents and pay for Gulf reconstruction. What we can report is that had the administration and BP come to an agreement on the specifics, they would have been announced last night. This is still being negotiated, and those negotiations will continue when Obama meets at the White House with BP executives at 10:15 am ET. Once the specifics are agreed to, the White House will announce how the fund will work, as well as the initial sum of money that BP is footing. An expected 12:15 pm Rose Garden statement by the president will be the announcement of the structure of this fund. But don't be surprised if things slip because unlike most White House meetings, there is actual suspense as to what BP and the White House can agree on.

*** Scaling back on energy: The other criticism that Obama has received, especially from the left, is that he didn’t make a bigger political pitch for cap-and-trade. The thinking is that he scaled back what he wants. “So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party -- as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels,” he said. Realistically, however, the votes aren’t there in the Senate to pass a full cap-and-trade bill (and they probably weren’t there a year ago, either). Remember when some of Obama’s advisers like Rahm wanted Obama to push for a scaled-back health bill? Well, he didn’t agree with that. But what seems likely on energy, though, is that energy/climate change will be the thing that gets scaled back. Scott Brown’s election didn’t kill health-care reform. But what it did do -- by extending the health debate for another two months, with members having to take more tough votes -- was kill a big comprehensive energy/climate change bill. For those familiar with how this speech was put together, it's clear the political folks got a hold of this energy language, as one enviro activist who is close to the White House put it.

*** What is going on in Florida? All of a sudden, Florida is beginning to turn into a problem for Republicans. In the GOP gubernatorial primary, establishment favorite Bill McCollum is in trouble against wealthy Rick Scott, creating a path to victory for Democrat Alex Sink, despite the fact that her own campaign hasn’t caught fire. And now wealthy Jeff Greene giving Kendrick Meek a run in the Democratic Senate primary, which could benefit Charlie Crist in the state’s three-way Senate contest. Why? Here’s the answer from Politico’s Martin: “The emergence of a politically unknown billionaire self-funder in the Florida Senate race is prompting top Democrats in the state to say publicly what some have been whispering for weeks: If Jeff Greene, who got rich betting on the collapse of the housing market, becomes their nominee, many in the party will have the cover they need to get behind Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist.” Talk about everything breaking Crist’s way (outside of the Jim Greer news). Meek had a real opportunity here, but so far hasn’t seized it. And Marco Rubio’s campaign -- which worked to push Crist out of the GOP race -- doesn’t appear to have anticipated the possibility that Crist might end up as the de facto Dem nominee. Indeed, Rubio's campaign has been pretty flat-footed since the Crist party switch. As one GOP operative put it to us: Rubio’s the dog that caught the car; he now doesn't know what to do next.

*** And what’s going on in Nevada, Kentucky, and Illinois? These haven’t been the best couple of weeks for GOP Senate candidates in high-profile races outside of Florida. In Nevada, as Politico’s Ben Smith has pointed out, Sharron Angle’s national rollout is looking somewhat similar to Sarah Palin’s in the fall of 2008 (it turns out she was once a member of the American Independent Party, she once suggested armed insurrection against the government, and she’s only doing interviews with conservative outlets). In Kentucky, Rand Paul has had to deal with another media hit (the fact that he isn’t certified by the eye-doctor profession’s leading group). And in Illinois, Mark Kirk has seen his military service -- which should be a positive -- become a negative (the Pentagon said it cautioned Kirk about mixing politics with his military service). If Republicans have a HUGE night in November but fail to come close in picking up the Senate, this paragraph should be clipped-and-saved and reviewed as the reason.

*** Dem concerns in Pennsylvania and Ohio: As the Obama administration knows well, there are always ups and downs in politics. And, for Senate Republicans, these are still heady days, especially considering the NRSC’s map in June ’09 vs. June ’10. But make no mistake: The GOP’s ability or inability to win these three contests -- or also the ones in CO, MO, OH, or PA -- will be the difference between a good Election Night and an OK one. Yet Republicans aren’t the only ones who are struggling with outsider candidates right now. In Pennsylvania, there is concern about Joe Sestak’s campaign structure. And in Ohio, Dems are worried about Lee Fisher’s poor fundraising numbers. As we wrote a few weeks ago, the outsiders -- Angle, Paul, Sestak -- have their pluses and minuses. It's amazing how many poorly run campaigns there are in major races that both parties are having to deal with.

Countdown to UT primary and NC and SC run-offs: 6 days
Countdown to AL run-off: 27 days
Countdown to GA primary: 34 days
Countdown to OK primary: 41 days
Countdown to KS and MO primaries: 48 days
Countdown to CO and CT primaries: 55 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 139 days

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