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First Thoughts: Down the unpopular middle

Obama takes the middle approach on Afghanistan, grabbing the most aggressive drawdown the military would sign off on… President heads to Fort Drum, NY, where he meets with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at 2:30 pm ET… The response to Obama’s speech was relatively muted… Romney returns to 2007-2008 form on Afghanistan-Iraq?... Pawlenty firmly embraces the McCain/Graham/Lieberman way… Senior administration official fires this warning shot to Boehner and House Republicans: Are you really siding with Khadaffy?... LGBT community warms up to Obama… Bachmann officially launches on Monday… And Huntsman’s Florida, while Gingrich is in Baltimore.

*** Down the unpopular middle: President Obama’s announcement last night to withdraw all 33,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by next year -- 10,000 by the end of this year, the rest by Oct. 1, 2012 -- didn’t please the Nancy Pelosis on the anti-war left. "It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out,” Pelosi said. And it didn’t please the John McCains on the neo-con right. "I am concerned that the withdrawal plan that President Obama announced … poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan,” he said. But, from the White House’s perspective, the withdrawal decision was the most aggressive Obama could get military commanders to sign off on (which was somewhat contentious). “We must chart a more centered course,” the president told the nation last night. Today, Obama heads to Fort Drum, NY, where he meets with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at 2:30 pm ET.

*** A relatively muted response: Yet while no one on Capitol Hill or the 2012 campaign trail was downright ecstatic about the plan or Obama’s speech, the responsive was relatively muted, at least compared with past policy speeches. Indeed, beyond McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Tim Pawlenty, no one truly criticized the president for withdrawing troops. The New York Times calls this “a remarkable shift in the politics of war.” The paper adds, “Mr. Obama is benefiting from a confluence of factors — a rising strain of Republican isolationism, the killing of Osama bin Laden and deep concerns about spending and the deficit — which provide unexpected flexibility for dealing with Congress and selling his decision to the nation.” Toward the end of his speech, the president focused on the U.S. economy, borrowing a line that Jon Huntsman had used on “TODAY” yesterday morning. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” Obama said.

*** Romney returns to 2007-2008 form: One of those muted responses was Mitt Romney’s, who said: “We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn't adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics… I look forward to hearing the testimony of our military commanders in the days ahead." That statement was consistent with PART of what Romney said at last week’s GOP debate: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can - as soon as our generals think it's OK." But it was inconsistent with the OTHER PART, when he said: "One lesson we've learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation's war of independence." So it appears Romney has reverted to his more hawkish 2007-2008 form. Honest question: Was his Americans-shouldn’t-fight-another-nation’s-war-of-independence talk simply a slip of the tongue?

*** T-Paw embraces McCain/Graham/Lieberman: While Romney’s critique was relatively muted, the same couldn’t be said for Tim Pawlenty, who was holding on tightly to the McCain/Graham/Lieberman rhetoric. “When America goes to war, America needs to win,” Pawlenty said on FOX last night, per NBC’s Lauren Selsky. “We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation building. What it means is to follow Gen. Petraeus' advice and to get those security forces built up to the point where they can pick up the slack as we draw down.” In other T-Paw news, the Washington Post reports that at least five top advisers to the GOP candidate having been working for little to no pay for several months. But what we’re hearing: Those choices were made long ago, and don’t necessarily signal any true fundraising struggles from the last few weeks, and these advisers didn’t sign up with Pawlenty to make money.

*** Obama White House to House Republicans: Are you really siding with Khadaffy? In his speech last night, Obama declared that “the tide of war is receding.” But one place where war -- and the U.S. debate over it -- isn’t receding is Libya. As Roll Call reports, House Speaker Boehner is “putting forward a strict funding limitation proposal to rebuke the Obama administration for pursuing military involvement in Libya without seeking the endorsement of Congress.” Yet on a conference call previewing last night’s speech, the White House responded with an old argument from the PAST, though it was a new one for THIS administration to use: The political opposition appears to be siding with the enemy. “Astoundingly, there is a move in the House of Representatives to take an effort as it relates to the ongoing effort to stop a tyrant in Libya and to turn it into a political football,” a senior administration official said on the call. The official added that the effort potentially sends “a very negative signal to the leadership of that country, which, as we all know, has over the course of time carried out hateful and heinous attacks against U.S. citizens, including terrorist attacks.”

*** LGBT community warms up to Obama: It’s a relatively quiet day on the 2012 campaign trail. One reason why: Almost everyone is fundraising, with just a few days left in the all-important 2nd quarter. In fact, after his stop at Fort Drum, Obama heads to New York City for an LGBT fundraiser. While the president’s policies might have lost him so fundraising support on Wall Street, they’ve won him fundraising support in the gay and lesbian community. The Huffington Post: “When the Democratic National Committee hosted an LGBT fundraiser nearly two years ago to the day, the prevailing narrative surrounded who exactly would protest. Thursday, two of the three people who conspicuously skipped that event … will play a supporting role.” More from the article: It's not just activists who are warming up to Obama in the lead up to the presidential campaign. The institutional gay-rights community is getting behind the president's reelection push as well. Obama's advisers are acutely aware of the fundraising prowess of LGBT donors, and they've catered their outreach to reflect that demand.”

*** Bachmann officially launches on Monday: Per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, Michele Bachmann officially kicks off her presidential campaign from Waterloo, IA on Monday. After that, she heads to New Hampshire and then to South Carolina.

*** On the 2012 trail: Huntsman spends Day 3 of his announcement tour in Florida, where he makes six stops… Gingrich speaks before the Maryland GOP in Baltimore at 7:00 pm ET.

*** Press vs. Congress -- in softball: And finally, tonight is the third-annual softball game in DC featuring female members of Congress vs. female members of the press. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Dem Sen. Amy Klobuchar are the play-by-play announcers. The benefits from the game go to young breast-cancer survivors.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 51 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 82 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 138 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 228 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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