Discuss as:

First Thoughts: The heat is on

The town hall heat is on… Who wins the political debate over the Ryan budget depends on how the debate is defined… Panetta to DOD, Petraeus to CIA -- and the upside and downside for Obama… Scoring cheap political points on gas prices (2008 vs. 2011)… How low can Donald Trump go?... Trump’s in New Hampshire today… The 2012 issue terrain… Prosser- Kloppenburg recount begins in WI… And Obama tapes “Oprah” and then hits DNC events in NYC.

From NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The heat is on: After Republicans and conservative groups drew blood in those 2009 congressional town-hall meetings over health care, you knew that Democrats and liberals would try to do same after House Republicans passed a budget that included phasing out Medicare. As NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reported on “Nightly News” last night, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan -- the architect of that budget plan -- faced heat from his Wisconsin constituents. “You are a good man, you're an intelligent man but you are not looking out for me," a retired teacher told Ryan. Said another attendee: "My concern is that my 48-year-old son is not going to have Medicare." In Florida, Rep. Daniel Webster (R), who beat liberal Alan Grayson (D) last fall, had to deal with angry outbursts at his town hall. (WFTV has the footage.) And also in Florida, the New York Times reports on GOP Rep. Allen West’s own town hall. “[S]ome of his constituents began on a chaotic note, with audience members quickly on their feet, some heckling him and others loudly defending him. ‘You’re not going to intimidate me,’ Mr. West said.”  

*** Who wins? Who wins this political debate will largely depend on how the debate is defined. If it’s about the budget deficit, Republicans win or at least minimize the damage. According to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, 44% say they think President Obama’s budget plan is better, while 43% think Ryan’s is, and respondents give congressional Republicans the advantage in dealing with the budget deficit. As Ryan told O’Donnell,” I sleep very soundly knowing what I'm trying to do is help fix this country's problems." But if the debate is about changes to Medicare and Medicaid, then Democrats win. Per our February NBC/WSJ poll, a whopping 76% said significant cuts to Medicare were unacceptable as a way to reduce the budget deficit.

*** Panetta to Defense, Petraeus to CIA: NBC’s Savannah Guthrie confirms the long-anticipated changes to President Obama’s national security team. He is nominating CIA Director Leon Panetta to succeed retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates; he has picked Gen. David Petraeus to replace Panetta at the CIA; and he will nominate former Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker will become the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Guthrie has more: The president called Panetta Monday to offer him the job, and Panetta accepted Tuesday. The idea for Panetta to go to DOD originated with Gates months ago, and Gates lobbied for Panetta to take the job. Panetta, Guthrie adds, was reluctant to leave CIA, but it was clear the White House never had any serious candidate other than Panetta.

*** The upside and downside for Obama: These moves also do these two things: 1) They FULLY shut the door on Petraeus 2012, and 2) they place a political bureaucrat (and we mean that as a compliment) in charge of DOD. Panetta is essentially similar to a Democratic version of Gates – someone who has bipartisan respect and also knows how the town’s machinery works. And he's also "fully formed" a la Gates, meaning Panetta won't care if he makes folks mad on Capitol Hill and on K Street during what's going to be a tumultuous budget reform process within the walls of the Pentagon. Remember, Panetta is a former budget director, he knows numbers too.  The downside for Obama: The moves take Gates out of the Afghanistan discussion publicly and politically. After all, there's going to be a point where the president is going to need a Petraeus to sign off and provide bipartisan cover when the withdrawal begins. And with Petraeus at Langley, he's not going to have the direct contact with the public and the uniformed chiefs to have the same clout as he has now. All of these appointments will fly through confirmation.

*** Scoring cheap political points on gas prices -- 2008 vs. 2011: In the spring/summer of 2008, remember when then-candidate Obama avoided scoring cheap political points with gas prices -- as both Hillary and McCain advocated a gas-tax holiday (which would have taken money away from the Highway Trust Fund)? In the end, Obama won that debate, and gas prices disappeared as an ’08 issue. But now the White House is trying to score cheap political points after House Speaker John Boehner suggested he’d be willing to eliminate oil subsidies. Of course, you can’t blame the White House for wanting to take advantage of Boehner’s misstep. But this is as much a stunt as what we saw in 2008…But it's born out of political necessity. Gas prices are serving as a HUGE drag on public pessimism in general, not just the president's approval rating.

*** How low can you go? First, he raised doubts about whether President Obama was born in the United States. Then he accused him of not writing his best-selling "Dreams from My Father." And now he's charging that the nation's first African-American president (and Harvard's first Law Review president) of not deserving to get into Ivy League schools. What's next? A "your mama" insult? The question is no longer whether Donald Trump has disqualified himself from being a serious presidential candidate (because he has, a long time ago). Instead, it's whether he's staining the GOP by association. How much longer can serious Republicans stay silent as Trump -- who visits New Hampshire today -- hijacks this whole process? Simply put, what Trump is doing is the equivalent of a GOP presidential candidate in 1995 campaigning on the Vince Foster rumors, or a candidate in 1968 suggesting that LBJ was connected to the Kennedy assassination. It is crazy conspiracy talk that has gone mainstream. And while Republicans quietly dismiss Trump as a sideshow, they aren't saying a lot publicly. What are they afraid of?

*** The 2012 issue terrain: The day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you knew that the 2004 presidential election would be fought over national security. (It's why Republicans chose New York as their convention city, and why Democrats picked John Kerry.) In 2007-2008, with Bush exiting the White House, you knew it would be a "change" election. (Which is why Obama was able to beat Hillary, and why the maverick McCain won the GOP nod.) Yet with more than 550 days until Election Day 2012, it's safe to say we don't know what kind of presidential election it will be.

*** The different narratives: Mitt Romney is hoping it will be a referendum on the economy. But what if the U.S. economy continues to add hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs per month? And what if gas prices begin to fall in the summer? President Obama is hoping for more jobs and lower gas prices, as well as a resolution to the situation in Libya, so he can campaign on a message of stability. But what if things get worse? Tim Pawlenty is hoping that this February and March becomes a GOP referendum on Romney, and that November 2012 becomes a referendum on Obama. Bottom line: As we pointed out earlier this week, a year and a half from now is a LONG time. The C.W. says it's going to be about the economy. But remember, at this point in the 2008 cycle, the C.W. was convinced foreign policy would be AS important as the economy.

*** Recount begins in Wisconsin: The recount to determine the winner of Wisconsin's Supreme Court race between conservative incumbent David Prosser (who is ahead) and liberal JoAnne Kloppenburg kicks off this morning, NBC’s Jason Seher reports. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the body that rules on all election matters in Wisconsin, ordered the start of the massive recount after approving Kloppenburg's request last week. The recount will not be conducted by the GAB, but by the 72 county clerks spread across the state. While county clerks only have until Monday May 9 to finish counting the 1.5 million ballots, the GAB will monitor progress in each county and, by the middle of next week, file for extensions for specific counties if the recount is taking longer than anticipated.   

*** The O’s: President Obama and the first lady head to Chicago today to tape an episode for the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Afterward, he travels to New York City to hit three DNC events.

*** On the 2012 trail: Cain delivers a speech to Americans for Tax Reform in DC… Gingrich already spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in DC… And Santorum remains in Iowa.

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 27 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 107 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 195 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 285 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter.