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First Thoughts: Back to the future

President Obama at last year's State of the Union

Obama’s SOTU to emphasize the future and competitiveness… He’ll also discuss bipartisan cooperation, job creation, deficit reduction, and investments… Republicans, meanwhile, this week zero in on spending cuts… NBC/WSJ poll finds a divided (and unsure) public on how to eliminate the deficit… The Tea Party flexes its muscles in New Hampshire… And George Allen is expected to announce his Senate bid, setting up (potentially) a rematch against Jim Webb.

*** Back to the future: In an email over the weekend to his grassroots supporters, President Obama previewed his State of the Union address, which he’ll deliver on Tuesday night. Obama’s message: He’s going to focus on the future. “My principal focus, my number one focus, is going be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future,” he said. “How do we make sure that people have good jobs with good benefits? How do we make sure that somebody who has a good idea can suddenly start a business? How are we going to make sure that we have the most innovative, dynamic economy in the world? And how do we make sure that our kids are able to compete with workers anywhere in the world?” You'll recall, the White House tried a version of this message on the campaign trail last fall with its "made in America" sloganeering. It didn't quite take off at the time, as spending and size/scope of government issues crowded it out.

*** Bipartisan cooperation, job creation, deficit reduction, and investments: On “TODAY,” NBC’s Savannah Guthrie further previewed Tuesday’s speech. Aides told Guthrie that Obama will emphasize working with Republicans whenever possible. He’ll also talk about the need for job creation, especially by increasing exports. And he’ll discuss the need for tough decisions on spending to reduce the deficit (a senior aide says the president will be fairly specific about spending cuts, but cautions not to expect something as comprehensive as the budget itself, which will be unveiled in a few weeks.). At the same time, however, Obama will call for “investments” in key areas like education and infrastructure. Guthrie also has this nugget: Daniel Hernandez, the hero intern from the Tucson shootings, will be in the first lady's box for the state of the union.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

*** Republicans zero in on spending: Meanwhile, Republicans this week will be focused on spending cuts. And they are reacting to the president's use of "investments" with a jaundiced eye, as both House Majority Leader Cantor and Senate Majority Leader McConnell singled out the term Sunday as cover for "spending." The Washington Post says House Republicans "will consider a resolution that would enact immediate and drastic spending cuts to domestic programs of nearly every variety. The resolution was designed to give Republicans a platform on spending to contrast with Obama's State of the Union message." And the New York Times adds: "In a series of carefully choreographed appearances on Sunday morning talk shows here, Republicans sought to draw the battle lines for the Tuesday night speech over government spending. With Mr. Obama planning to call for 'investments' of tax dollars in specific areas like education, infrastructure and technology, Republicans insisted that 'investment' was just another name for spending that the nation can ill afford."

*** A divided (and unsure) public on how to eliminate the deficit: While Americans, according to polls, want to reduce federal spending, they’re unclear how to achieve that goal. In our recent NBC/WSJ survey, 47% said that budget deficit can solely be eliminated by cutting wasteful spending, versus 46% who say it will take a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. And get this: When those wasteful-spending-cuts-only folks are told that the deficit can’t be eliminated entirely that way, 32% of them advocate cutting important programs (like Social Security and Medicare), 29% want to raise taxes, and 30% call to postpone eliminating the deficit. Bottom line: Everyone says they want to reduce the deficit, but the American public is unsure -- and not all that informed -- how to get there. There's no popular solution to the debt problem. Whatever is agreed (if anything is agreed to) will be politically unpopular with a good chunk of the electorate. So the two parties either hold hands and jump off the cliff together, or…

Tea Party activist Jack Kimball, the newly elected chairman of the New Hampshire GOP.

*** The Tea Party flexes its muscles in New Hampshire: If you thought the Tea Party’s influence on the Republican Party had diminished after the November midterms, think again. Over the weekend, a Tea Party-backed candidate (Jack Kimball) defeated the establishment-backed choice (Juliana Bergeron) in the contest for chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. As the New York Times put it, “The race was watched as a sign of how much influence Tea Party groups will exert here in the lead-up to New Hampshire’s presidential primary, the first in the nation, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14, 2012. Mr. Kimball wasted no time in saying, minutes after his election, that he wanted the state’s Republican primary voters to choose a ‘good, strong conservative’ candidate.” On the one hand, it’s not surprising that a state that gave Pat Buchanan a presidential primary victory would elect a Tea Party person to head the state GOP. On the other hand, you can’t write off the independent vote in the Granite State. By the way, keep an eye on what's going on in state GOP elections, not just for party chair but for committee member posts, etc. There's a new breed of conservative activist getting involved in state politics, crowding out some longtime establishment types.

Former Sen. George Allen (R-VA)

*** George Allen’s rematch: Former Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) -- once considered a leading GOP presidential candidate before he lost his seat to Jim Webb (D) -- is expected today to announce he’s running for old job again in 2012. But keep this in mind: While rematches are tough in general, a pre-Macaca Allen beat a relatively weak Chuck Robb (D) by just 52%-48% in 2000, a year Al Gore didn’t even compete in Virginia (and lost the state 52%-44%). Of course, the Democrats still have to convince Webb to run for re-election. But if Webb does -- or if Tim Kaine takes his place if he doesn’t -- it could be much more difficult than many are realizing for Allen to win if Obama’s re-election chances are looking strong. Be careful handicapping this race ONLY through the prism of 2006 or 2010; presidential years dramatically alter the Virginia electorate.

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 29 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 288 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 378 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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