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First Thoughts: No margin for error in Hagel nomination

President Obama's nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary has been earning criticism, with Hagel under fire for past statements on Iran and Israel. Obama, however, said Hagel's "willingness to speak his mind" is "exactly the spirit I want on my national security team." NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

Hagel rollout went as well as planned, but still not an easy fight … Obama puts HIS team in place and is trying to make his mark on foreign policy … Poll shows better marks for Obama than Boehner in fiscal-cliff fight … the White House’s gun push takes shape and could be coming soon … Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly announce formation of group to counter the NRA … Bloomberg tries to assert mayoral influence, but how much does/should he have? … Christie ‘State of the State’ today to focus on Sandy … R.I.P. Richard Ben Cramer -- he had what it takes.

*** No margin for error in Hagel nomination: Yesterday’s official rollout of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary went about as well as it could have for the Obama White House. Statements of praise for Hagel by folks like Colin Powell and Robert Gates? Check. A statement of past praise from John McCain (who said in 2006 Hagel would make a “great secretary of state”), even though McCain is now taking a skeptical look at the nominee? Check. And getting Chuck Schumer, perhaps the Democratic senator with the most reservations about Hagel, to issue a non-committal statement? Check. So the White House feels pretty good about where things stand, although this won’t be an easy fight. Yet what Team Obama can’t afford is any new negative information, any other shoe to drop. Bottom line: There is no margin for error from this point onward. Hagel’s support, at best, in the Senate is an inch deep and that “inch” would get him the votes he needs. But it wouldn’t take much for the bottom to, well, fall out. This is going to be a precarious few weeks. Very few senators are in D.C. right now, so the interest groups will be front and center. Hagel needs his confirmation hearing sooner, rather than later, but right now, it’s unclear when those hearings will be scheduled. Hagel also needs FACE time with senators, and he won’t have that opportunity for a good week or so. 

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., in the East Room on Jan. 7, 2013.

*** Obama’s confidence -- 2009 vs. 2013: As we wrote yesterday, Obama is clearly projecting a level of confidence at the start of this second term than he did four years ago, in particular, on foreign policy. Just look at the initial comfort level with his picks for his second-term national security team (Hagel, John Kerry, John Brennan) vs. the first-term team (Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Jim Jones). At the start of his first term, the president was no less confident about his foreign policy judgment but he made the calculation that he needed to placate the Washington establishment so he stuck with the Republican Gates at Defense, brought in Hillary to State, brought in a former general, Jim Jones, as his National Security Adviser. Gates and Clinton worked out, but Jones didn’t. 

Top Talkers: The Morning Joe panel – including Time's Mark Halperin, New York Magazine's John Heilemann, former DLC Chair Harold Ford Jr. – discusses President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel to defense secretary and why several top GOP lawmakers are having a tough time with the nomination.

*** Amplifying his views, using political capital: Now? The president is using his national security choices to amplify his views in a way that was missing four years ago. Kerry, Hagel, Brennan and keeping Tom Donilon as NSA (even potentially elevating Deputy NSA Denis McDonough to White House chief of staff) indicates the president is not just interested in running foreign policy out of the White House, but he wants to leave an Obama imprint on Defense, CIA, State etc. But it may be more than that -- Obama is displaying a confidence that he didn’t necessarily show after 2008. Much of this is what you get with a second-term president who got more than 51% of the popular vote (for the second-straight time). He may NOT be saying it the same way Bush did in 2004-05 after winning a second term, but he’s, so far, displaying the following notion: Obama believes he’s earned political capital, and he’s going to use it. 

*** Polling the concluded fiscal-cliff debate: Our first initial look at some polling post-Fiscal Cliff offers few surprises. According to a new Washington Post/ABC poll, American voters approve more of President Obama’s handling of the just-concluded debate over the fiscal cliff. “In the new survey, conducted after the House followed up a Senate vote by passing the measure, 53 percent of voters say they approve of the way Obama handled the matter, while 40 percent disapprove. The overall tally is clearly negative for Boehner’s performance: 30 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval.” For Boehner, that includes 52% of Republican voters who disapproved how he handled the negotiations. Meanwhile, a new Pew poll finds that 57% of adults “say that Obama got more of what he wanted from the tax legislation, while just 20% say Republican leaders got more of what they wanted. And while 48% approve of the way Obama handled the fiscal cliff negotiations only 19% approve of the way GOP leaders handled the negotiations.”

*** The White House and guns: Mark Glaze, the executive director of the Michael Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal Guns, chatted with First Read and NBC yesterday, saying that there were three proposals the White House could announce as part of its comprehensive package dealing with the aftermath of Newtown, CT. One, require background checks for ALL gun buys. (This actually has support from gun dealers and manufacturers, Glaze said, because it’s the private sale of guns that’s the big problem here.) Two, ban assault weapons and magazines. (If background checks are the easiest proposal to pass, then this might be the hardest.) Three, pass a federal anti-trafficking statute, making it a crime to be trafficking in guns. Glaze also said there were things the White House could do administratively -- like put an actual director at the ATF (either through Senate confirmation or recess appointment) and prosecute prohibited sellers (which he said the administration currently isn’t doing). By the way, don’t be surprised if the White House moves to unveil its proposals by as early as next week. In other gun-related news, Vice President Biden today will meet “with gun violence victims’ groups and gun safety organizations,” the AP reports. And Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly announce the formation of Americans for Responsible Solutions to counter the National Rifle Association in an op-ed on gun control in USA Today

*** Bloomberg’s wandering (mayoral) eye: Speaking of Bloomberg, the New York Times runs yet another story suggesting that the outgoing New York mayor isn’t happy with the slate of candidates running to succeed him. “Mr. Bloomberg has mused about a Mayor Charles E. Schumer with the Democratic senator from New York, and teased Mortimer B. Zuckerman, a fellow billionaire media mogul, about a possible bid. The mayor’s advisers raised the idea of a run with Edward G. Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia, and with Edward Skyler, Mr. Bloomberg’s former top deputy in City Hall, according to several people. The mayor’s most formal overture was delivered to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, perhaps Mr. Bloomberg’s most quixotic choice for the job.” More: “The flirtations are unwelcome news for [apparent front-runner Christine] Quinn, who has been Mr. Bloomberg’s reliable partner in city government for years.” How much sway does Bloomberg really have though? Yes, he changed the rules to win a third term, but voters didn’t overwhelmingly send him back. He spent millions to win a race that should never been as close as it was. Candidates who decide to fall under Bloomberg’s spell about running ought to take a look at the 2009 results: Bloomberg didn’t crack 51%.

Must-Read Op-Eds: Before Mika Brzezinski reads a David Brooks NYT column on why President Obama chose Chuck Hagel for the defense secretary position, the Morning Joe panel discusses NJ Gov. Chris Christie's rising popularity in his home state.

*** Chris Christie to deliver State of the State address: The Philly Inquirer reports: “Gov. Christie will focus Tuesday's State of the State speech on rebuilding towns damaged by Hurricane Sandy, a storm that pushed the well-exposed Republican governor further into the national spotlight and brought him bipartisan praise. But New Jersey Democrats were clear Monday that they hold him responsible for the economic doldrums the state had fallen into before Sandy: a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and the country's second-highest foreclosure rate.” 

*** RIP, Richard Ben Cramer. The obituary from the New York Times: “Richard Ben Cramer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and the author of “What It Takes,” a superbly detailed account of the 1988 presidential election considered among the finest books about American politics ever written, died in Baltimore on Monday night. He was 62.” On Twitter last night, it was striking to see so many political operatives and political journalists (your authors here included) note how inspirational “What It Takes” was to their careers. There are plenty of other folks offering great tributes to Cramer today. Ours is simple though: we believe there’s just one book every aspiring political journalist and operative ought to read if they want to know whether or not they are serious about this profession: it is “What It Takes.” It’s basically the unofficial textbook of Washington. If you haven’t read it, then you don’t get it. 

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