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First Thoughts: Obama's delicate dance on Afghanistan

Obama’s delicate dance on Afghanistan – balancing an unpopular war and strategic interests … Why using the bin Laden anniversary was smart … Republicans’ muted response, and Mitt Romney’s vague response (and foreign policy) … It hasn’t been a great week for Romney, but Friday’s jobs report gives him another chance … And cavalry has arrived - Restore Our Future is back, with a $4 million ad buy across nine battleground states … A Romney staffer’s exit leads to more controversy … Gingrich’s long goodbye … And Lugar attacks Mourdock on air in Indiana, but the race is all about Lugar.

By NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, Natalie Cucchiara, and Brooke Brower

Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama arrives to address troops at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 2, 2012.

*** The delicate dance on Afghanistan: President Obama was doing a delicate dance on Afghanistan yesterday. It's why people came away with two impressions -- either the U.S. is committing to stay in Afghanistan (until 2024) or the war is ending. Both are true to an extent, though this is a marked shift in strategy to a narrower counter-terrorism focus. Think Biden plan. This is ONLY the end of the Afghanistan war – as we know it. It is NOT the end of the war itself. The reasons Obama's walking this fine line -- he's trying to manage a fragile relationship with Afghanistan, which is concerned that the U.S. will leave, and a war-weary American populace, which increasingly views the war as unpopular. It’s between Karzai and Afghanis not believing the U.S. would stay and Americans wanting the U.S. to go. Look at the polling, and you see just how unpopular the war's become over the past year in particular.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about President Barack Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan on the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden and his outline for the ongoing U.S. commitment in the country.

*** Why using the bin Laden anniversary was smart: When there were whispers that Obama was going to Afghanistan yesterday, there were cries from the right that the president was going to spike the football. No, this was a president using the bin Laden anniversary to sell what was not going to be that popular a policy on Afghanistan. It was a tough sell, but he might as well use the most popular anniversary he had to sell the policy and, frankly, hope that it led to the exact interpretive confusion that we’ve noticed in the media this morning. He used whatever political capital he had to sell a policy that wasn’t going to be viewed as very popular. And the result – a muted response from Republicans, some of whom seem to be trying to figure out how to attack Obama, but haven’t quite figured it out how yet on this. One thing this will create though – a new annual fight in Congress over the funding of Afghanistan. By the way, read the president’s speech again: there are a LOT of caveats in there: What happens if some of the goals aren’t met -- does that mean some troop withdrawals slow? Could the U.S. ramp up again? There are more open questions this morning as one digests what happened yesterday.

*** Romney’s vague response: After Obama’s speech, Mitt Romney’s campaign put out this VERY vague statement:

“I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan. Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our President about what is at stake in this war. Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation’s security. It would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists. We tolerated such a sanctuary until we lost thousands on September 11, 2001. Many brave Americans have sacrificed everything so that we could win this fight for a more secure future. Let us honor the memory of the fallen, not only by keeping them in our daily thoughts but also by staying true to their commitment. We are united as one nation in our gratitude to our country’s heroes.”

But what does this statement say? When it comes to Afghanistan, Romney has never been very clear on what he would do differently than this president. He’s vaguely talked about timelines, but that’s not clear. It’s incredibly vague. It’s, well, to borrow John Boehner’s favorite analogy: it’s Jell-O.

*** It hasn’t been a great week for Team Romney: The bin Laden anniversary has dominated the news, the Grennell controversy (more on that below) and Romney may have even walked into an Obama team trap (with a largely unfair accusation declaring Romney wouldn’t have ordered the bin Laden raid) with his “Jimmy Carter” comments. Carter was an unforced error for Romney, and the Romney team knew it. Yesterday, was a Romney who stopped and said basically, “I’m not going to have this debate because I’m not going to win this debate.” Say nice things, be vague, and wait for that Friday jobs report. He was a much different Mitt Romney. And if that jobs report is subpar, he can get back on message – on the economy, which is what this election is all about. That’s exactly what the Romney campaign is focusing on with a new video this morning, “Broken Promises: Jobs and the Economy.”

*** Romney staffer’s exit leads to more controversy: When it was revealed that President Obama was in Afghanistan, word leaked out that the Romney campaign had parted ways with foreign policy spokesman Richard Grennell, who was openly gay and also landed in hot water because of misogynistic Tweets that were deleted. Jennifer Rubin writes, though, that it was because of the opposition from anti-gay groups that forced him out. Grennell himself alludes to that as the reason in a statement. Romney Campaign Manager Matt Rhoades said in a statement from the campaign: “We are disappointed that Ric decided to resign from the campaign for his own personal reasons. We wanted him to stay because he had superior qualifications for the position he was hired to fill.” Did they beg him to stay or beg him to stay in another capacity? His hiring raised eyebrows among social conservatives, but raised eyebrows with others that they hired someone with an acerbic Twitter tongue to deal with the press. It was always a head-scratching decision. The danger of this story is it feeds this notion that when Romney tries to say, “I’m more of a moderate” – even in a general – he still has to look over his right shoulder to cover his right flank.

*** They’re baaaack: After a short hiatus after the GOP primary finally wrapped up, Mitt Romney-aligned Super PAC Restore Our Future is back. They’ve bought up $4 million in broadcast and cable ads (and will likely increase) over the next two weeks in nine states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Notice, though, what’s left out (at least for now) – Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Wisconsin, you can explain, because there’s no room on the air there with the Walker recall fight. Pennsylvania, maybe can be explained, because they were just up there in the primary. But lots of people are going to ask – Michigan but not Pennsylvania (so far), really? That’s got to be a little disconcerting that this isn’t an expand-the-map ad buy. There’s no indication yet of what ad Restore will run. The buy goes up Thursday. Brittany Gross, a spokeswoman for the PAC wouldn’t characterize what the ad would look like yet or acknowledge that there was a forthcoming buy. (Here’s the most recent Restore anti-Obama ad.)

*** The long goodbye -- we can finally roll the credits on the ‘Sixth Sense: Campaign Newt edition’: Newt Gingrich is expected to “officially suspend his campaign” at 3 pm in Arlington, VA, today, a week after he said he would be dropping out. He will speak about “helping Mitt Romney and the Republican party build a governing coalition in Washington and state capitals across the country,” spokesman R.C. Hammond said in a statement. Don't expect Romney to appear despite also being in the area. One thing Gingrich is doing is setting the record for the longest exit from the race. And the way Gingrich has decided to exit is exactly the playbook you’d follow if you did NOT want to speak in primetime at the Republican Convention. In fact, both Gingrich and Santorum have bungled their goodbyes. Romney owes them VERY little at this point. For the record: Here’s the Gingrich good-bye video and here’s the Obama campaign’s “good-bye video,” compiling Gingrich’s attacks on Romney. Of course, there was the same trove of video with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden attacking Obama during the primary. That hasn’t helped the GOP much.

*** Lugar up with attack ads hitting Mourdock, but race is all about Lugar: Incumbent GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate in big jeopardy of losing that job, went up with new radio and TV ads yesterday, hitting state Treasurer Richard Mourdock as having “bad judgment” and “a record of failure.” But the Indianapolis Star notes the race is all about Lugar: “On one side, it's about voter fatigue as the former Indianapolis mayor seeks a seventh Senate term. It's about conservatives who are upset with some of Lugar's votes and some of his bipartisan friendships. It's about frustration among many GOP county organizers over Lugar's lack of involvement for many years in local politics. It's about a belief among some that Republicans should be represented by a dig-in-your-heels fighter, not a diplomat. And it's about the Lugar campaign's stumbles, as well as a deep anger at Washington, D.C., insiders. On the other side of the street, it's about people who deeply appreciate Lugar's willingness to consider more views than the one in his head. It's about a hope that Capitol Hill won't remain as gridlocked as it has been these past few years, and that more lawmakers with Lugar's reasonableness will take office, or at least that fewer will be tossed out. It's about a belief that this country needs lawmakers less inclined to explain the country's problems in simplistic political sound bites, and more capable of grasping the global picture -- yes, even if that means missing the Posey County GOP Lincoln Day dinner because it conflicts with a trip to the former Soviet Union.”

Countdown to Indiana Senate/Wisconsin recall primaries: 6
Countdown to Wisconsin recall election: 34
Countdown to Election Day: 188 days

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