Discuss as:

First thoughts: Stating the obvious

U.S.-China relations take center stage… Obama-Hu news conference occurs at 1:05 pm ET; state dinner gets underway at 7:35 pm… U.S. has very little leverage with China… The U.S.-China story steps on the House’s repeal of health care -- the final vote takes place around 5:00 pm today… NBC/WSJ poll day… The end of a Senate era with the Lieberman and Conrad retirements… Breaking down Lieberman’s tough re-election path… Boehner’s state dinner absence… And Trumka on 2012.

*** Stating the obvious: Over the past week, the political world has focused on the tragic shootings in Arizona and the GOP effort to repeal the health-care law, and deservedly so. But today, a story with longer-term consequences takes center stage: U.S. relations with China. In the Oval Office at 10:00 am ET and 11:00 am, President Obama holds bilateral meetings with Chinese President Hu for the Chinese leader’s official state visit. At 12:20 pm, Obama and Hu meet with prominent U.S. and Chinese business leaders. Less than an hour later, at 1:05 pm, Obama and Hu hold a joint news conference. And in the evening, the state dinner honoring Hu gets underway.

*** Little leverage: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell notes that the U.S. has very little leverage in today’s talks with Hu. In recent months, the United States has been borrowing $4 billion a day to finance the budget deficit -- HALF of which is now provided every day by China. At the same time, China has to worry about its own inflation problems, U.S. officials tell Mitchell. And as the holder of all that debt, the last thing China wants is for the U.S. economy to fall back into recession, or worse. A major concern here is that Hu has diminished authority -- unlike past Chinese leaders -- and that the real power lies with the military. Our take on today’s state visit: It has become another foreign-policy event that Obama has tried to turn into an economic story (just consider today’s CEO meet-and-greet at 12:20 pm). In fact, the economic part is more important than the strategic part. Many Americans may be watching today's events asking: is China an ally or an adversary or both? Our answer: exactly. It's a complicated relationship where there's still a lot of cultural distrust that needs to be overcome.

*** Stepping on the repeal story: It’s also worth pointing out how today’s state visit has stepped on the health-repeal story. Last week, and especially before Arizona, the GOP effort to repeal Obama’s signature health-care law would have been the dominating political story. Now? It’s not being watched as closely -- due to Arizona, the China story, and also the fact that repeal is unlikely going anywhere in the Senate. The Washington Post also makes this point: The House’s current debate over health care is much more civil than it was a year ago. “This time around, there were no frightening warnings about ‘death panels’ for the elderly or a ‘holocaust’ of uninsured Americans.” The final vote on the repeal effort is expected around 5:00 pm to 5:30 pm ET, NBC's Luke Russert says, and the measure is certain to pass given the GOP’s majority. http://wapo.st/gdMcz6

*** NBC/WSJ poll day! How do Americans view China (vs. the U.S.)? What are their thoughts on the health law and the GOP effort to repeal it? And how do they see President Obama after the Arizona shootings and Congress’ lame-duck achievements? Well, look for the answers in our latest NBC/WSJ poll, which comes out at 6:30 pm ET.

*** Why Manitowoc? Yesterday, the White House announced that Obama would travel to Manitowoc, WI the day after his State of the Union address. Why Manitowoc? Consider that Obama captured 53% of the vote in this county in the 2008 general election. But last year, victorious Republicans Scott Walker (in the governor’s race) and Ron Johnson (in the Senate contest) won, respectively, 60% and 58% in Manitowoc. This isn't that friendly of a county for the president; it's arguably GOP leaning since Obama's percentage in the county in 2008 underperformed his percentage in the state (56%) by three points.

*** End of a Senate era: The most striking part about the news yesterday that both Sens. Joe Lieberman (I) and Kent Conrad (D) would be retiring at the end of this Congress wasn't the politics, though we'll dig into that in a minute. Instead, especially for those of us who started covering politics in the '90s, it was yet another reminder that a Senate era is ending. Consider this list of senators who have retired, lost, or died since 2008: Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Ted Stevens, Arlen Specter, John Warner, Chris Dodd, Kit Bond, even Joe Biden. And when you add Lieberman and Conrad to that list, that's a combined 335 years of Senate service.

*** Lieberman’s tough re-election path: As for the politics of Lieberman’s retirement -- which he’ll announce at 12:30 pm ET in Stamford, CT -- his path to victory would have been extremely difficult. He could have run for re-election as a Democrat, but would have faced a primary challenge from the left, and we saw how that played out in 2006 (with Ned Lamont defeating him). He could have, as he did after his primary loss, run as an independent. But remember that Lieberman was able to pull off that victory because the GOP nominee (Alan Schlesinger) got just 10% of the vote. “He believes that if he were to run for re-election it’d be a tough fight,” aide Marshall Wittmann told the New York Times. “He’s confident he could’ve won that fight.” Yet this is also perhaps a fitting time for Lieberman to announce the end of his Senate career. After disappointing his party -- on Iraq, for endorsing John McCain, for criticizing Obama at the GOP convention -- the Connecticut senator stewarded the passage of a top Democratic priority: repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

*** Here’s a conversation starter: The last three unsuccessful VP nominees have been Sarah Palin. John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman. Discuss. (Hat tip: Walter Shapiro.)

*** A tale of two retirements: Speaking of retirements… Last week, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) announced she was retiring. The actual impact on 2012: Unless something shocking happens, a Republican (possibly Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) will hold on to the seat, especially in a presidential year. But when North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D) said yesterday that he wasn’t running for re-election in 2012, that has a MUCH bigger impact. The reason: It’s unclear if Democrats will be able win this open seat, especially in a state where Obama won just 45% of the vote in ’08. Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Reports says that the GOP starts out with the early advantage. “Republicans have to be considered the favorites to take over the seat,” he said. The good news for Democrats -- the GOP no longer has a John Hoeven waiting in the wings. While Lieberman, Conrad, and KBH are retiring, one longtime senator isn’t: Dick Lugar (R), who might have to fend off a Tea Party primary challenge. http://wapo.st/i7JjpC

*** Harry Reid’s new challenge: Here’s one final point about Lieberman’s retirement: Since he’s not running for re-election, this means he’s a total free agent on legislative matters. A new challenge for Harry Reid?

*** Boehner’s absence: As we mentioned above, Obama tonight is holding a state dinner with President Hu of China tonight. But guess who’s not coming to the Hu dinner: newly installed House Speaker John Boehner. The move has raised eyebrows for some, especially after Boehner turned down a ride on Air Force One to go to Tucson, and after Republican congressional leaders wanted a later date for their post-election meeting with Obama. In fairness, Boehner will meet with Hu to have a substantive meeting this week on Capitol Hill, according to Boehner aide Michael Steel. On turning down the ride on Air Force One, Boehner was tending to duties as speaker -- a bipartisan prayer service, for example -- that kept him from jumping on that flight. And it's also true that Boehner rarely, if ever, attends state dinners. But the question becomes whether the speaker, who’s second in line in presidential succession, has a greater responsibility to appear at these kind of events. NBC's Mitchell notes that Newt Gingrich, then the Republican speaker during the second Clinton term, was very present at the state dinner for Ziang Zemin -- the last state visit for a Chinese leader.

*** Trumka on 2012: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is addressing the National Press Club this morning. Here’s an excerpt of Trumka’s remarks: “Last year’s election was fundamentally about jobs, and I believe the 2012 election will be fundamentally about jobs. America wants to work. People who live in Wonderland may not have noticed, but there is a lot of work to be done here. While one in five construction workers is looking for work, we have a $2.2 trillion old-school infrastructure deficit. We need to invest trillions more to build the 21st century infrastructure necessary for our nation’s and our planet’s future—high-speed mass transit, smart utilities and universal high-speed broadband.”

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 34 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 293 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 383 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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