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First Thoughts: Fortifying and frightening

The latest NBC poll is both fortifying and frightening for Obama… What has changed for Obama since bin Laden’s death and what hasn’t… Obama addresses immigration reform in El Paso at 3:30 pm ET… And it’s as much about politics as it is policy… Will we see another Meg Whitman Effect in 2012?... After his event in El Paso, the president heads to Austin for two fundraisers… Boehner lays down his marker in the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling… He also mentions a couple 2012 names (and doesn’t mention a couple of others)… 4th Circuit hears oral arguments on health-care law… And what happened to Sarah Palin?

*** Fortifying and frightening: NBC co-pollster Peter Hart (D) perhaps best sums up our latest NBC survey after bin Laden’s death: It should “both fortify the president and frighten [him]” as we head into 2012. What’s fortifying: The president’s foreign-policy and Afghanistan handlings have hit all-time highs, while his leadership, decision-making, and commander-in-chief ratings have all increased. What’s frightening: His economic handling -- attributed largely to the high gas prices -- has reached an all-time low. Overall, Obama’s job approval stands at 52% (a three-point increase from April) and his generic re-elect stands at 45% (up two points from last month; more interestingly, though, the "definite" vote for the Republican went DOWN eight points). As co-pollster Bill McInturff adds, these numbers underscore the “tremendous anchor the economy is to the president’s job standing.” Bottom line: The president acquired SOME political capital, but not as much as history suggests -- which is a reminder of just how potent the issue of gas prices are right now.

*** Suburban women vs. independents: Speaking of fortifying and frightening, here’s a demographic that should make Team Obama feel good: Among suburban women -- always a key demographic group -- 55% now approve of the president’s job, and 50% say they will probably vote for him in 2012. But here’s a group that should make them feel a bit worried: Among political independents, 43% of them approve of Obama’s job, and just 29% of them say they will probably vote for him in 2012 (compared with 21% who say they will vote for the eventual GOP nominee, and another 26% who say it depends on whom the GOP nominee is).

*** What has changed for Obama and what hasn’t: The NBC poll’s table of presidential attributes gives us a good idea on what has changed for Obama since bin Laden’s death and what hasn’t. The biggest increases: being firm and decisive (an 11-point jump from last December), having the ability to handle a crisis (11 points), being a good commander-in-chief (10 points), and uniting the country (10 points). The smallest increases: sharing your positions on the issues (three points), being honest and straightforward (three points), and having strong leadership qualities (five points). The big movements here, for the most part, are on qualities respondents saw through the prism of national security or foreign affairs; the smaller ones are on domestic matters.

*** What has changed for Obama and what hasn’t -- among independents: And that’s also true when you look only at independents on these attributes. The biggest jump among indies: strong leader (14-point increase), strong commander-in-chief (eight points), and being firm and decisive (eight points). The smallest jumps: sharing your positions on the issues (three points), achieving his goals (no change), and uniting the country (a four-point DROP). There's no greater challenge the president has right now than closing this gap with independents on a number of fronts. The gaps are, using Hart's word, "frighteningly" large.

*** Immigration politics: Obama today heads to El Paso, TX, where he will deliver a big speech on immigration reform at 3:30 pm ET. As it turns out, the White House has held some immigration-related event every week or two over the past several weeks (on March 28, he held a Hispanic education town hall; on April 19, he met with immigration-reform stakeholders, including Hollywood types like Eva Longoria; and on May 3, it was with the Hispanic congressional caucus). Of course, this is as much about politics as it is policy -- Latinos voted for Obama in 2008 by a 67%-31% margin, and they make up an important bloc of voters in the battleground states of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, and even a place like North Carolina. What’s more, immigration reform has become a one-sided conversation. While George W. Bush also proposed similar immigration reform, and 12 GOP senators voted for it in 2007 (including five who currently serve in the Senate), most Republicans now oppose it. 

*** The Meg Whitman Effect: Let’s realize what’s coming on immigration: It’s very possible that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who benefited from the Latino vote in his re-election battle last year) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) will likely introduce some sort of immigration reform (and probably the DREAM Act, too) in the fall, just as the GOP presidential race begins to heat up. And it will force the GOP candidates to come out against immigration reform, since their base is opposed to it. This is precisely what happened to Meg Whitman (R) in her bid for California governor last year: Her GOP primary took her to the right on immigration, and she was unable to return to the center on the issue in the general election. All it took was one outsized incident to see her numbers imply collapse with Latinos.

*** An aspirational speech: In a conference call yesterday previewing Obama’s immigration speech, senior administration officials said the president will “make the case that legislation is the root to reform here,” and he will underscore his “commitment” to a legislative solution. However, he is “not going to lay out any particular deadline,” and he won’t get into specifics. (We’ve seen this movie before, of course…) Instead, it will be an aspirational speech in which Obama wants to create “a sense of urgency around the country” on the issue. It will be “a call to action in order to get this over the top,” a senior administration official said. More evidence that this is a speech designed to resonate in the 2012 campaign, NOT in the 2011 legislative agenda.

*** Boehner starts off negotiations on the side of the Tea Party: In New York last night, House Speaker John Boehner laid down his marker in the upcoming battle over raising the debt ceiling: that spending cuts should be greater than the increase in the debt ceiling. “We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions,” he said. Boehner followed up his remarks with an interview on TODAY this morning. “This is a window of opportunity to address the big issues that face our country,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “This is the moment -- now -- to address those problems as adults… I think we need to work together.” But he also said that any tax hike is a non-starter. “It is off the table. Everything else is on the table.” Rhetorically, Boehner is trying to start off the negotiations on the side of the Tea Party. Yesterday, folks like Michelle Bachmann set the stage for this when she sent out a release indicating the GOP "squandered" the negotiations over the 2011 budget (which caused a near shutdown) because it did not lead to significant cuts or changes in the budget process.

*** Boehner names some names (and doesn’t name others): Also in the TODAY interview, Matt Lauer asked Boehner about the potential GOP presidential field and about Donald Trump and Chris Christie. On his own, however, Boehner also mentioned Newt Gingrich and Mitch Daniels. Two names he DIDN’T mention: Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. #justnoticing

*** Oral arguments at the 4th Circuit: The other big news today: “A three-judge appellate court panel will hear oral arguments Tuesday morning over the constitutionality of the nation’s health-care overhaul as lawsuits challenging the federal law proceed up the legal ladder before most likely landing at the U.S. Supreme Court,” the Washington Post reports. “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit will hear debate at a Richmond courthouse in two cases.”

*** What happened to Sarah Palin? In the upcoming issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Josh Green looks at the “Tragedy of Sarah Palin” – that before she became a national political lightning rod, she had a compelling record as Alaska’s governor. “She set aside private concerns for the greater good, forgoing a focus on social issues to confront the great problem plaguing Alaska, its corrupt oil-and-gas politics. She did this in a way that seems wildly out of character today—by cooperating with Democrats and moderate Republicans to raise taxes on Big Business. And she succeeded to a remarkable extent in settling, at least for a time, what had seemed insoluble problems, in the process putting Alaska on a trajectory to financial well-being." The rest of Green’s piece examines what happened to Palin: "Anyone looking back at her record can't help but wonder: How did a popular, reformist governor beloved by Democrats come to embody right-wing resentment?"

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 14 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 94 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 126 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 182 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 272 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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