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First Thoughts: Making his case

Obama to make his case on Libya in televised address at 7:30 pm ET… Previewing what Obama will say… And what he hasn't said yet about the situation there… While the policy appears to be working (the rebels have the momentum), what has hurt the White House has been the messaging… The budget debate on Capitol Hill resumes… Bachmann and Cain stole the show at Saturday’s cattle call in Iowa… Will Rand Paul soon join them?... Today’s cable catnip: Robert Gibbs is in talks to join Facebook… And Santorum’s in New Hampshire.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Making his case: When President Obama addresses the nation tonight at 7:30 pm ET on the situation in Libya, he’ll have yet another opportunity to explain why the United States should be intervening in that country’s civil war, especially when the U.S. is involved in two other wars and when U.S. unemployment remains so high. It’s a challenge that was highlighted by Defense Secretary Gates, who said on "Meet the Press" yesterday that Libya isn't a "vital" U.S. interest. “I don’t think it’s a vital interest for the United States,” Gates said. “But we clearly have interests there. And it’s a part of the region, which is a vital interest for the United States.” Secretary of State Clinton added, “[Libya] didn’t attack us, but what they were doing and Khaddafy’s history and the potential for the disruption and instability was very much in our interest… And seen by our European friends and our Arab partners as very vital to their interests.”

*** What Obama will say: Here is what we’ve learned Obama will likely say tonight, according to sources. One, he’ll announce that the one-week campaign (to establish a no-fly zone and to immobilize the Khaddafy’s army) has worked. Indeed, due to the Western airstrikes, rebel forces have the momentum and are now at the doorstep of Khaddafy’s home town. Two, the president will stress that the U.S. has handed over command and control to NATO. A senior administration official confirmed to NBC’s Courtney Kube yesterday that NATO has agreed to take over the mission to protect Libya’s civilian population. And three, he’ll discuss the lives that the campaign has saved. One other thing to note: The reason why the president is making his speech from the National Defense University and not from the Oval Office is that it’s more of a “policy” speech (which presidents typically deliver from different venues) than an “action” one (which they typically give from the Oval Office).

*** What Obama hasn’t yet said: But here are questions we’re looking for Obama to answer in tonight’s speech. One, what’s the end game for U.S. involvement? What happens if Khaddafy’s forces and the rebels are locked in a months-long stalemate? Will the U.S. continue to intervene? Two, how much has the mission cost and how much will it cost? Three, if the rebels triumph, what kind of governing order would they bring to Libya? And four, what happens the next time there’s a humanitarian crisis and the international community supports an intervention? What does that mean for Syria? What about Iran? As Obama said in his weekly address over the weekend, “I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Khaddafy threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region; and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives—then it’s in our national interest to act.”

*** It’s the messaging, stupid: Despite all the criticism the Obama White House has received on Libya -- and much of it has been pure politics (see: Gingrich, Newt) -- the policy appears to have worked, at least for now. But what the administration has struggled with is the messaging. And this has been a constant theme we’ve witnessed from Team Obama that goes all the way back to the presidential campaign of 2007-2008. It always seems to take them a day or two or three to get it right. And once they do, they do it with overkill (examples: tonight’s speech and tomorrow’s interviews with the network anchors).

*** Budget debate resumes: The real fight on Capitol Hill isn't Libya, however. Rather, it's the budget. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “The White House and Democratic lawmakers … are assembling a proposal for roughly $20 billion in additional spending cuts that could soon be offered to Republicans, according to people close to the budget talks. That would come on top of $10 billion in cuts that Congress has already enacted and would represent a deeper reduction than the Obama administration and Senate Democrats had offered previously in negotiations. But it isn't clear that would be enough to satisfy Republicans.” The White House feels pretty confident it can cut a deal with Speaker Boehner. The question remains: Can Boehner get his caucus to accept a deal? And here’s why the GOP -- so far -- has been winning the budget debate, at least message-wise: because the debate has been over numbers, not policies.

*** Bachmann and Cain steal the show -- again: We know we’re beginning to sound like a broken record, but it’s true: The GOP’s presidential “top tier” has some work to do. The best-received speakers at Rep. Steve King’s (R) cattle call in Iowa on Saturday? Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, even though Haley Barbour and Newt Gingrich also spoke. Haley and Newt were both politely and fairly well received, but they weren't met with the raucous, rally-like atmosphere of Bachmann, who was followed by Cain. And it's not the first time that folks who probably won’t be president (or even the eventual GOP nominee) overshadowed the supposed top tier. At an earlier Iowa cattle call, Cain and former Gov. Buddy Roemer stood out. And at CPAC, Ron Paul, Donald Trump, and a “fake” Sarah Palin drew the most buzz. What’s more, it was striking that Barbour chose to focus on the economy in his speech before a crowd of social conservative activists, which drew a mild rebuke from a speaker on a family values panel. And Gingrich was left defending his position(s) on Libya.

*** Enter Rand Paul? While Bachmann -- as well as Trump -- sucked up most of the oxygen in the early GOP presidential field last week, the next entrant in the “Andy Warhol” primary could very well be Rand Paul. The freshman GOP senator was in South Carolina last week and said he was likely to run for president if his father doesn’t. As Al Cross in the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote over the weekend, there’s probably not enough Tea Party room for both Paul and Bachmann, even though they represent different strands of the Tea Party (Bachmann is more a social conservative, while Paul is more a fiscal/libertarian one).

*** Today’s cable catnip: Per the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin, Robert Gibbs might go to work for Facebook. “Facebook is in talks to hire Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former White House press secretary, for a senior role in helping to manage the company’s communications, people briefed on the negotiations said… Mr. Gibbs, who left the White House in February after two years on the job, had been planning to help establish President Obama’s re-election campaign before taking a private sector job, these people said.”

NBC News' Domenico Montanaro talks about a New York Times report, which suggests the site is eyeing the former White House Press Secretary to manage its communications.

 *** On the trail: Rick Santorum, who didn’t attend Saturday’s Iowa cattle call because of a family emergency, is in New Hampshire today, where he speaks at the Grafton County Lincoln Reagan Day Dinner at 8:00 pm ET.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 11 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 137 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 225 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 315 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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