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First Thoughts: Biden's gun violence listening sessions begin

Low expectations for NRA meeting with White House on guns … Obama’s two options on guns – incremental or bold, either one puts him in a box. … The U.S. is signaling it wants out of Afghanistan and using “zero option” as negotiating tactic with Karzai … With Afghanistan policy, cabinet picks, a confident Obama’s fully implement the “Obama Doctrine.” … 2016 watch: There are several governors/potential 2016 hopefuls giving State of the State addresses. What they say could lay the groundwork for 2016 bids … 2014 watch: A conservative group goes after McConnell, Strickland won’t run again for governor in Ohio.

*** Joe Biden’s gun violence listening sessions begin: Beginning today, Joe Biden begins the series of gatherings at the White House, aimed at trying to create some consensus on what to do about gun violence. These are the meetings President Obama promised would take place in the wake of Newtown, and these are the meetings that are designed to come up with recommendations in time for the president to push in his State of the Union. The most intriguing session could be tomorrow when gun groups, including the NRA, are represented at the White House. But let’s not get too optimistic about the NRA’s participation. This meeting may be for show, pure and simple. Both sides had to do it. The White House had to issue an invite to the NRA, and the NRA had to say yes, which the NRA says will indicate the seriousness with which they take this offer. The NRA is sending a representative (not LaPierre) to hear what the White House has to say, but it is just one of several gun-advocacy groups that will participate in this Biden guns summit.

The vice president returned to Washington Thursday and is scheduled to meet with victim groups and gun-safety organizations. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Not much common ground with the NRA: If there is any common ground between the NRA and the White House, it could be on the idea of mandating state participation in the mental-health database and stronger mental-health screenings. But nothing on gun restrictions themselves, not on clips either. As for today’s meeting, Biden meets with victims’ groups and gun-safety advocates. And he’s also expected to meet with representatives from the video game and entertainment industry, but those meetings have yet to be scheduled. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on TODAY said that despite New Jersey having some of the toughest gun laws in the country, that banning guns is not enough. “I’m willing to have that conversation,” Christie said of a federal ban on powerful, high-capacity weapons, “but you’ve got to deal with these other issues.”

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden stands on the steps of the Capitol as Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., nearly a year after suffering a major stroke, marks his return to the Senate by walking up the steps to the Senate door.

*** Two options on gun measures: The White House has a self-imposed deadline of the end of this month to come up with some tangible items. They can go one of two ways: (1) Incremental (magazines and mental-health screenings): This will show the White House trying to create proposals that can pass, but there will be a lot of disappointed people, or (2) Bolder (really pushing for reinstating the assault-weapons ban, mandatory background checks of all purchases, including private sales, a national gun ownership database): But the risk of the bold approach is that it can’t pass Congress. It’s a bit of a political box for the White House; they’d like to do something, and there is a chance to “do something,” but what is possible and what some gun-control advocates really want are not in the same ballpark.

The New Jersey governor talks with TODAY's Matt Lauer about the state of the Republican party, gun control, and his frustrations over the postponement of a vote on disaster aid for superstorm Sandy victims, saying, "people are suffering."

*** U.S. wants out of Afghanistan: Afghan President Hamid Karzai hits Washington this week. He will meet with the president at the White House Friday. Coinciding with that visit, White House national-security officials held a conference call yesterday, in which they said, per NBC’s Ali Weinberg, that leaving no troops at all in Afghanistan after the scheduled 2014 drawdown is a possibility. It’s clear President Obama wants as minimal a presence in Afghanistan post-2014 as possible (short of covert ops and special forces). The “zero option” is all about negotiating leverage with Karzai. (The range being talked about seriously is from 3,000 up to a high of 15,000, pushed by military types.) Yes, Karzai says publicly he wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but he really needs and wants more U.S. troops there for security. But clearly, this is not going to be a sustained nation-building effort.

*** ‘Obama Doctrine’ being fully implemented: The mercurial Obama Doctrine is now clear and being fully implemented with the president free of politics. In his first term, Obama was boxed in politically by the Pentagon and had a cabinet full of politically palatable holdovers (Gates, Petraeus) and a rival (Clinton). He probably regrets the Afghan surge but he can never say it, because soldiers died. Compare that to now – the U.S. on the verge of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan (minus covert/special ops) and a national-security team of Hagel, Brennan, and Kerry. The U.S. needs some presence in Afghanistan to launch attacks on al Qaeda, et al, but Obama policy will likely make it look more like how the U.S. operates in Pakistan and Yemen than George W. Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Joins The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd to talk about why he wanted to join Congress, and his colleagues should say "no" to Obama more often.

*** Governors to watch for 2016: While we still don’t know when the president is delivering his State of the Union, there are 50 “State of States” coming up. And there are a bunch we’ll be looking at delivered by potential 2016 hopefuls -- from Chris Christie in New Jersey (on the cover of Time, by the way, as “The Boss”) to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Bob McDonnell (R) in Virginia, Bobby Jindal (R) in Louisiana, and Martin O’Malley in Maryland. Christie, who delivered his yesterday, focused on Sandy and pragmatism (mildly rebuking his party on TODAY: “We’ve lost two elections in a row. The answer is no… we have to be thinking about doing something different.”) Cuomo, who delivers his today, will focus on guns and pushing for stricter limits on them. McDonnell, who also makes his “State of the Commonwealth” address tonight, unveiled his transportation funding plan, which remarkably called for the elimination of the gas tax. That’s traditionally been what’s funded transportation projects both statewide and at the federal level. But McDonnell also proposed making the source of transportation funding with higher sales taxes and other fees, including even a $100 annual fee on hybrid cars and alternative-fuel vehicles. For those governors thinking about running for president, these speeches could provide a baseline for what they’re platform might be.

*** Three-way race in Virginia? Speaking of Virginia, the governor’s race to replace McDonnell could get a little more interesting. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who’d have a hard time winning a GOP primary against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is leaving the door wide open to an independent bid. “I have been tremendously encouraged,” Bolling told a local TV station, adding, “Unfortunately when the Republican Party needs to be a big tent party it seems to me we are doing everything we can to become a pup tent party. That is not the right direction for the Republican Party.” He says he’ll make his decision on whether to enter this year’s race by mid-March. By the way, a Quinnipiac poll shows a statistically tied race between Cucinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, with lots of undecideds. McAuliffe has the narrow 40%-39% edge. Bolling only gets 13% in a potential three-way with McAuliffe and Cucinelli both at 34%.

*** 2014 watch: Conservative group launches Internet ad against Mitch McConnell: “Whose side are you on? … Former Democratic Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said yesterday he won’t run in a rematch against incumbent Republican John Kasich. … The Boston Globe digs into where Ed Markey, thinking about a run for the Senate, has gotten his money over the years. He was chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, and “the communications and electronics industries have been Markey’s largest sources of campaign cash….”

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