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First Thoughts: A steeper Afghanistan drawdown?

A steeper drawdown in Afghanistan?… How the politics of the war might be changing, especially on the GOP side… Obama today meets with his national security team to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan at 10:00 am ET… How should Obama and the Democrats talk about the economy?... “Daily Rundown” tease: Past incumbent presidents have had a pretty similar message heading into their re-elections… Obama sits down at noon for another round of affiliate/local interviews… “Summer of Speculation” turns to Rick Perry… Santorum makes his presidential bid official at 11:00 am… And Herman Cain’s in Iowa.

*** A steeper Afghanistan drawdown? The New York Times front-pages today’s top news story: The Obama administration is considering a steeper drawdown in Afghanistan.  “President Obama’s national security team is contemplating troop reductions in Afghanistan that would be steeper than those discussed even a few weeks ago, with some officials arguing that such a change is justified by the rising cost of the war and the death of Osama bin Laden, which they called new ‘strategic considerations.’” More: “The cost of the war and Mr. Karzai’s uneven progress in getting his forces prepared have been latent issues since Mr. Obama took office. But in recent weeks they have gained greater political potency as Mr. Obama’s newly refashioned national security team takes up the crucial decision of the size and the pace of American troop cuts.” The Times also reports that Obama is expected to deliver a speech on the subject later this month. The president meets today with his national security team to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan at 10:00 am ET.

*** Have the politics changed? One thing to consider is that the politics on Afghanistan -- from the GOP side no less -- have begun to change. Before he decided not to run for president, Haley Barbour was discussing how the U.S. should detach itself from the war there. Even Sarah Palin has talked about expediting the timeline for withdrawal. “[C]onditions have changed there and we need to reevaluate the timeline that we have for ourselves being in there,” she said on “FOX” yesterday. And last week’s House GOP votes on the U.S. involvement in Libya suggested that today’s Republican Party has war fatigue. No doubt that there are still certain elements inside the GOP (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard) that would be opposed to an early departure from Afghanistan. But are the politics for a steeper drawdown easier than ever before?

** Administration vs. Pentagon: Also, check out how the Times sets up the Afghanistan debate -- between the Pentagon and the administration. Indeed, the tension over troop levels between these two entities (particularly between the National Security Council and the Pentagon) has been there since Obama took office. And it hasn't gone away. What has changed: The president may feel more comfortable telling Gates (and his successor) no.

*** No pain, no gain: Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece analyzing how Obama and the Democrats should talk about the U.S. economy heading into 2012. The consensus -- from both Dem pollster Stanley Greenberg and Obama adviser David Axelrod -- is that they need to embrace the economic pain many Americans are feeling. “Mr. Greenberg said in an interview: 'If you have 55% saying economy is poor, how can you possibly get re-elected if you ground your campaign on a backward-looking appraisal of your performance?'" More: "Mr. Axelrod, now an adviser to Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, appeared to side with Mr. Greenberg on the question of how much Democratic messages should look forward or backward. 'I've always said the same thing, which is we may not have created this mess, but we're responsible now. And people are less interested in how we got here than where we're going,' he said." Bottom line: Expect the president to stop touting AS MUCH about pulling the car out of the ditch and instead try and soothe folks who are still, well, in rehab (In fact, these are the metaphors he HAD used and has now ditched).

*** The re-election message: USA Today looks at the “Obama” brand heading into 2012. Yet as one of us will discuss on MSNBC's “Daily Rundown” this morning, there's a remarkable similarity in how incumbent presidents try to convince the country they should keep their jobs when running for re-election. They tout successes, acknowledge (even subtly) mistakes, and they try to sell themselves as the steady hand. Since Carter, there have been five presidents who have run for re-election, three of them in tough economic times (Carter, Reagan, and H.W. Bush). Only Reagan won.

*** Obama’s affiliate interviews: By the way, Obama conducts yet another round of interviews with affiliate/local news organizations -- to talk about the auto industry’s recent successes. The interviews, which take place at noon ET, are with the Hearst DC Bureau, WEWS Cleveland, and WDIV Detroit.

*** “Summer of Speculation turns to Rick Perry”: Over the weekend, the Dallas Morning News reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has invited the nation’s other 49 governors to join him at “a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation” in August. The news has triggered more speculation that Perry could jump into the GOP presidential race. And here’s the thing about Perry: His name will continue to be the mix -- whether or not he runs -- due to geography and ideology. Without Huckabee or Barbour, there isn’t a current or former southern GOP governor in the field. And ideologically, today’s Republican Party is more rooted in the South and its politics than ever before. But Perry’s main problem is with the establishment wing of the party. If you’re going to win the GOP nomination, you need to win over the establishment, plus either the Tea Party or evangelical wings of the party. JUST having the Tea Party and the evangelical wing isn't enough, if major parts of the establishment are against you. And Perry's got a LOT of political enemies who have "Bush" on their resumes.

*** Santorum’s day: At 11:00 am ET from Somerset, PA, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will formally announce his presidential bid. While other Republican candidates and non-candidates have recently dominated the headlines -- even Herman Cain got the New York Times profile treatment over the weekend -- Santorum’s socially conservative views give him a chance in Iowa. In addition, he’s comfortable in his own skin, and is among the best performers (at the debates and candidate forums) in the entire field. His minuses: He lost his 2006 bid for re-election, in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania, by a whopping 18 points. Moreover, is he too socially conservative, especially on a subject like gay rights as Americans attitudes have shifted on that subject? Earlier this morning on ABC, Santorum said, per NBC’s Matt Loffman: “We're ready to announce that we're going to be in this race. And we're in it to win. We're very excited about what the future holds.”

*** Going home: The site of today’s Santorum announcement -- Somerset, PA -- is where the presidential hopeful’s grandfather settled and worked in the coal mines after immigrating from Italy. But NBC’s Doug Adams noted last Friday that the Pennsylvania location reopens old questions about Santorum’s legal residence when he served in the Senate. As Adams wrote, “He and his wife Karen have owned a house in the Penn Hills, PA, suburb of Pittsburgh since 1997. But while he was in office, Santorum and his family spent most of their time living in a much larger house the couple owned in Leesburg, VA. Santorum says he kept his legal residence in Pennsylvania and spent holidays and some weekends there. But he always voted absentee, and the local press found another couple listed as registered voters at the same address.” What’s more, Santorum got caught up in a controversy when the Penn Hills school district paid 80% of the tuition costs for a “cyber” charter school that Santorum’s children attended while they lived in Virginia.

*** On the 2012 trail: Herman Cain today stumps in Iowa.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 68 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 99 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 155 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 245 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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