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First Thoughts: Breaking away

Obama breaks away from Congress… Obama as Bush 41? (The one difference: Obama has a base that 41 never had)… Reid schedules first cloture vote on the tax deal for Monday at 3:00 pm ET… “Cluster” vs. “network” liberals… President eyes tax reform… DADT repeal blocked in the Senate… Gates says that means the policy is at “the mercy of the courts”… Obama meets today with Bill Clinton at 3:00 pm ET… T-Paw’s book tour… And Palin is off to Haiti.


*** Breaking away: As we’ve witnessed over the past two years -- and especially this past week -- Congress often seems like a dysfunctional place. And polls confirm that, with congressional approval ratings near 20% on a good day. That’s why presidents often want to keep their distance from the legislative branch. But to help pass his ambitious agenda (stimulus, health care), President Obama sometimes got his hands dirty in the congressional sausage making, having to twist arms and settle intra-party disputes. In short, he was acting more like a Senate majority leader than president. Yet when you step back from the events of the past week, you realize that the president might have laid the groundwork to accomplish this feat: break away from Congress. In rising above the partisans from both parties to cut the tax deal, as well as scolding liberal “purists” at his press conference, Obama no longer seemed like a de facto majority leader or party whip. He was, well, presidential.

*** Obama as Bush 41? There’s another way to look at Obama breaking away from Congress and Democratic liberals: that he’s Bush 41. As Jon Meacham wrote yesterday, “It was in 1990 that Mr. Bush broke one of the most celebrated promises in modern American politics -- ‘Read my lips: no new taxes,’ as he put it in 1988 -- in order to control federal spending. In the same way that Mr. Obama struck his deal to secure lower tax rates for the middle-class and win an extension of unemployment benefits, Mr. Bush gave on tax rates to get ‘pay as you go’ rules… It was the beginning of the fiscal discipline that helped create the budget surpluses of the 1990s.” The comparisons are obvious: Both men are/were pragmatists (in domestic and foreign policy), both have the Ivy League/New England grace, and both disappointed party activists.

*** The big difference: But there’s one big difference: Bush 41 never had the natural and loyal base than Obama does now with African Americans, Latinos, and young voters. It's what cost Bush 41 in '92, and that loyal base Obama enjoys may be what saves him in 2012. We laugh anytime we read about Carter-Obama comparisons, because there aren't many. But because Carter was the last one-term Dem president, folks try to fit some analysis into that box. Some presidents are similar, despite carrying different party labels. The most striking similarities between Obama and Bush 41 aren't just on style but on foreign policy. Just ask, well, Israel.

*** Reid schedules first tax vote for Monday: Turning to the tax deal itself, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the compromise legislation last night. And NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports that Reid will call for a cloture vote on Monday to begin debate on the agreement. The vote -- which needs 60 to pass -- is expected at 3:00 pm ET and may be held open for a few hours if senators are traveling back from home states. But over in the House, the Democratic caucus yesterday voted (though it wasn’t binding) not to bring the legislation to the floor in that chamber. In an interview with NPR, however, Obama said he was optimistic the overall compromise “framework” would become law. “I think that the framework that we've put forward -- which says not only that people's taxes don't go up on Jan. 1, but also that we extend unemployment insurance for a year, that we make sure that key provisions like the college tax credit, the child tax credit, the earned-income tax credit are included -- that that framework is going to serve as the basis for compromise.”

*** “Cluster” vs. “network” liberals: While enough House Democrats -- along with congressional Republicans -- are expected to come around and vote for the agreement after Senate passage, make no mistake: Their frustrations and anger are real. According to Capitol Hill sources, these Dems are upset with the policy (especially regarding the concession over estate taxes) and the process (with the White House freezing them out from the final negotiations). But more than anything else, they see this tax-cut deal as the final straw in the Obama White House taking their votes for granted. In today’s New York Times, David Brooks has an interesting take on the Obama-vs.-House Dem divide. He says that House Dems are “cluster” liberals, who “view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity.” On the other hand, he calls people like Obama and Ted Kennedy “network” liberals, who “believe progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions.” By the way, we're still wondering when more than the same five to 10 Democrats are going to go public in their opposition to Obama's compromise? Is the opposition being overhyped?

*** Obama eyes tax reform: As we wrote earlier this week, one way that Obama can avoid re-litigating the Bush tax cuts in 2012 (when they expire and when he runs for re-election) is to push for an overhaul of the tax code between now and then. And in his interview with NPR, he suggested he’s more than open to such a move. “The idea is simplifying the system, hopefully lowering rates, broadening the base - that's something that I think most economists think would help us propel economic growth. But it's a very complicated conversation,” Obama said. “So what I believe is, is that we've got to start that conversation next year. I think we can get some broad bipartisan agreement that it needs to be done. But it's going to require a lot of hard work to actually make it happen.” Real tax reform, as was proposed by the Bowles-Simpson debt commission, is one way to make this two-year extension of the Bush tax rates moot.

*** DADT repeal blocked: Senate Republicans yesterday filibustering the defense authorization bill -- which contained the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” -- was an unmistakable defeat for the Obama White House and the gay community. And it means that DADT is unlikely to be repealed any time soon, unless the courts decide to overturn the policy. The Washington Post: "With congressional options dwindling, the president could order the Justice Department to stop appealing federal court cases challenging the constitutionality of the law or use his powers as commander in chief to issue a stop-loss order halting military discharges and the removal of any gay troops in violation of the ban. His statement Thursday maintained a preference for legislative action." Supporters also will try to bring the repeal as a stand-alone measure, though the prospects for passage aren't likely. By the way, the man most responsible for the opposition to repeal – John McCain, who in 2006 signaled his willingness to end DADT if military leaders agreed – delivers a speech this morning at John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

*** At the “mercy of the courts”? Defense Secretary Gates, who advocated for repeal, commented on the defeat while on a plane returning from an overseas trip, per NBC’s Courtney Kube. "I was disappointed in the Senate vote, but not surprised, as I indicated when we were on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln earlier in the week. I was not optimistic. The fact remains though that there is still roughly a week left in the lame duck session, so I would hope that the Congress would act to repeal ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell.’” More Gates: “If they are unable to do that, then, as I indicated in testimony, and talking with you all, my greatest worry will be that we are at the mercy of the courts and all of the lack of predictability that that entails."

*** Obama meets with Bubba: Think Bill Clinton will give President Obama some advice in dealing with a GOP-controlled Congress when the two men meet at the White House -- closed to the press -- at 3:00 pm ET?

*** T-Paw’s book tour: Next month, Tim Pawlenty’s book, “Courage to Stand,” will hit the stores, and an aide sends First Read his book-tour schedule: Washington, DC (1/13), Tampa, FL (1/14), Woodbury, MN (1/18), Dallas, TX (1/20), Dallas and Houston, TX (1/21), Manchester, NH (1/25), Burnsville/St. Cloud, MN (1/27), Cincinnati, OH (1/29), Ankeny, IA (1/30), and West Des Moines, IA (1/31).

*** Palin to Haiti: NBC’s Adam Verdugo reports that Sarah Palin is headed to Haiti this weekend with Rev. Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, according to aide Rebecca Mansour. Palin also publishes a Wall Street Journal op-ed endorsing Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” (which calls for turning Medicare into a voucher system and allowing workers under 55 to invest their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market).

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