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First Thoughts: 'I deserve a second term'

TODAY's Matt Lauer sits down exclusively with President Obama, who talks about the violence in Syria and the challenge of having a family life on the public stage.

Obama: “I deserve a second term”… The president also talks Iran and Syria… Romney’s rough week… He trails Obama by six points (51%-45%) in new WaPo/ABC poll… On contraception and the Catholic vote… On those Super Bowl car ads… Gingrich’s strategy to stay in the race… Paul’s disappointing 3rd-place finish in Nevada… And the disappointing GOP turnout.

*** “I deserve a second term”: Two things stood out to us in President Obama’s interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer before yesterday’s Super Bowl. First, when asked about his comment three years ago that his presidency would be a “one-term proposition” if he hadn’t turned the economy around, Obama responded, “I deserve a second term, but I am not done.” He added, “We've created 3.7 million jobs in the last 23 months. We've created the most jobs since 2005, the most manufacturing jobs since 1990, but we're not finished." And he concluded by saying that progress has been made on the economy, but that it’s important not to reverse that progress. The other thing that stood out to us: his comment that a president gets better as time goes on. When Lauer asked about some of his supporters being disappointed with the amount of change his administration has accomplished, Obama replied, “I'm going to just keep on doing is plodding away, very persistent. And you know what? One of the things about being president is you get better as time goes on.” It’s mildly surprising to hear a president say that, but it is also one of the truths the public does believe -- and it’s an additional hurdle for a potential challenger. In a close call election, the “don’t change horses in midstream” mantra can be a strong pull.

Obama on TODAY: 'You get better as time goes on'

*** Obama talks Iran and Syria: And while we think we know the contours of the 2012 election -- namely, the economy’s direction -- the news coming out of Iran and Syria are additional reminders that its driving issue could change in the blink of an eye. Obama said this about Iran to Lauer: “We have done extensive planning over the last several years about all our various options in the gulf.  And, you know, we are prepared to exercise these options should the need arise. But my goal is to try to resolve this diplomatically mainly, because the only way over the long term we can assure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon is by getting them to understand it's not in their interest.” On the violence in Syria, the president added, “I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. And I think that's possible. My sense is that you're seeing more and more people inside of Syria recognizing that they need to turn a chapter. And the Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them.”

Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks on jobs for veterans February 3, 2012 at Fire Station #5 in Arlington, Virginia.

*** Russia’s back as rival: One other thing exposed this weekend during the debate at the U.N. regarding Syria: Russia as a rival is back. The Russians have been VERY vocal about saying they wish they could have had their Libya-U.N. vote back. Just asking, but the Russians being more aggressive in opposing the U.S. (and most of the world) on this issue a signal Putin’s back to believing less in a more cooperative relationship with the U.S. on foreign policy issues in general?

*** Romney’s rough week: Paradoxically, the past week for Romney -- which has included two of his three victories, in Florida and Nevada -- might have been his roughest yet a presidential candidate and exposed some serious weaknesses as a general-election candidate. For starters, there was his “I’m not concerned about the very poor” comment, which only furthered the narrative that this uber-wealthy pol isn’t in touch with the problems of average Americans. Then there was him getting Donald Trump’s endorsement, which not only was unfortunate timing after his “poor” comment, but which also linked him to America’s most famous “birther.” And then came Friday’s jobs report, which -- at least for the time being -- undermined the rationale behind his entire candidacy. (What role is there for a turnaround artist if something is already turning around?) The good news for Romney: It’s a new week, February is set up very well for him, and we have a LONG way to go…

*** Obama leads Romney by six points, per new poll: But the new Washington Post/ABC poll is a clear indication of how rough last week was to Romney. According to the poll, conducted from Wednesday to Saturday, Obama has opened up a six-point lead over Romney among registered voters, 51%-45%, and Obama’s overall approval rating now stands at 50%. What’s more, 52% say Obama better understands the economic problems people are having, while 37% say Romney does. And respondents are split on Romney’s wealth, with 44% seeing it negatively and 43% viewing it positively. But there are still danger signs for Obama in this poll: Romney has leads over the president when it comes to handling the economy and budget deficit; nearly 90% rate the economy negatively; and just 33% believe the economy is a good reason to back Obama’s candidacy for re-election.

Obama on TODAY: 'You get better as time goes on'

*** On contraception and the Catholic vote: Despite the relative good news for Obama over the past few weeks -- on the economy and on the divisive GOP race -- critics have seized upon the administration’s decision mandating that Catholic universities and hospitals must eventually offer contraception prescriptions to those who want it. That decision has angered the Catholic bishops and has produced speculation that it could produce a backlash among Catholic voters. But consider this: If Catholic voters are going to be fired up about this, then shouldn’t they have been voting more Republican over the past 20 years, when we’ve seen tons of OTHER highly charged political debates over abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia? There have been many predictions that those issues would push Catholics monolithically toward the GOP, but they haven’t. As it’s turned out, there’s a big difference between culturally conservative Catholics -- those who abide by all Catholic teachings, even those against contraception -- and those who aren’t as culturally conservative. Think of the divide as active/church going Catholics vs. less active members of the church.

*** On those Super Bowl car ads: Whatever you want to think about the Clint Eastwood car ad -- “It’s Halftime, America” -- and all of the other car ads during last night’s Super Bowl, they only seemed to reinforce the message the Obama campaign wants to make this fall: The U.S. automotive industry is back, and that’s a big success for the country. Could the Big Three ad campaigns be a subliminal Super PAC supporter of the president?

*** Gingrich’s strategy to stay in the race: Over the weekend, the Washington Post mapped out Gingrich’s strategy to stay in the GOP presidential race. “He will focus heavily on upcoming contests in Southern states, where he expects his Georgia roots and conservative rhetoric to play well. And he will step up his attacks on his leading rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for being too liberal to take on President Obama in the fall.”

*** Paul’s disappointing third-place finish in Nevada: Just askin’, but if Ron Paul’s campaign team was supposed to have such a good organization and if it was trying to make inroads in all of the caucus contests, then wasn’t his third-place finish in Nevada pretty disappointing? Gingrich, who doesn’t have too much of an organization and who didn’t campaign as aggressively in Nevada, finished second there.

*** And the disappointing GOP turnout: By the way, just slightly under 33,000 participated in the Nevada GOP caucuses – which was down from the 44,000 who participated four years ago. In fact, it’s the second-consecutive contest where turnout was down from ’08. Here are the numbers:

2008: 118,411
2012: 121,503

2008: 233,464
2012: 248,485

2008: 443,203
2012: 601,215

2008: 1,925,911
2012: 1,669,647

2008: 44,325
2012: 32,930

*** On the 2012 trail: Santorum stumps in Minnesota and then heads to Colorado… Romney holds two rallies in Colorado, in Grand Junction and Centennial… Paul, in Minnesota, campaigns in St. Cloud and Minneapolis… And Gingrich campaigns in both Colorado and Minnesota.

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 29 days
Countdown to Election Day: 274 days

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