Discuss as:

First Thoughts: What we learned this week

What we learned from this surprisingly busy week… Today’s big event and news: Karzai comes to the White House… On guns: a still-combative NRA -- and lowering expectations on an assault-weapons ban… Chuck & Chuck (Hagel and Schumer)… Colin Powell to appear on “Meet the Press”… And is Barney Frank’s public campaign backfiring?

*** What we learned this week: It was a surprisingly busy first full week of 2013, especially since Congress is out and the White House had all of Washington to itself. And here’s what we learned: The Obama White House circled the wagons around Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, with Hagel’s chances of confirmation improving but also with him having little margin of error. Team Obama continued to build a second-term team -- Hagel, John Brennan to CIA, Jack Lew to Treasury -- that is more closely aligned with Obama’s priorities rather than pleasing the Washington establishment to implement the president’s agenda, even if it’s creating the perception problem of a boy’s club. The White House lowered expectations on guns, with Vice President Biden talking about executive action (by definition small-bore) and with many doubtful that an assault-weapons ban could pass Congress. But it also raised expectations on Afghanistan, with the prospect that the administration might pull out ALL U.S. troops by 2014. And finally, everyone began to lay the groundwork for the latest fiscal fight in Washington, with the threats of a government shutdown and a $1 trillion platinum coin. What a week -- and now we’re just 10 days before Obama’s inauguration.

Larry Downing / Reuters

President Barack Obama announces that White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew will be his nominee for Treasury Secretary, replacing Timothy Geithner in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 10, 2013.

*** Karzai comes to the White House: The big political story today is Afghanistan, given that Obama is meeting with Afghan President Karzai at the White House, and the two men hold a press conference at 1:15 pm ET. The New York Times sets up the meeting -- and the intrigue. “Emboldened by what administration officials assert are gains against operatives of Al Qaeda, and concerned about the financial and political costs at home, Mr. Obama is leaning toward a more aggressive timetable for withdrawing troops than his military commander in Afghanistan initially recommended.” More: “Mr. Karzai, who met Thursday with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, has far different expectations, according to Afghan officials. Although he has been careful not to discuss specific troop numbers in public, Mr. Karzai appears to be counting on a substantial residual American force — perhaps as many as 15,000 troops, whose mission would be to advise Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban insurgency and carry out raids against Al Qaeda.” If Karzai didn’t know it before he came Washington, the president seemed to make it CRYSTAL clear he wants out of Afghanistan quickly. First, he nominated a defense secretary that shares his view on this issue, and plans to push back on any military commander plans that call for more troops. Second, the White House publicly floated the idea of “zero” troops in Afghanistan in 2015. It’s something that is spooking Karzai privately. How each man words this issue of U.S. troop involvement while standing next to each other today will be fascinating.

*** A combative NRA -- and lowering expectations on an assault-weapons ban: Given Wayne LaPierre's combative press conference and "Meet the Press" appearance after Newtown, the National Rifle Association's statement after meeting yesterday at the White House shouldn't have been surprising. “We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the 2nd Amendment… We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.  Instead, we will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works -- and what does not.” Meanwhile, the Times notes the White House realizes that an assault-weapons ban might be the most difficult component to pass Congress. And therefore, it "is trying to avoid making its passage the sole definition of success and is emphasizing other new gun rules that could conceivably win bipartisan support and reduce gun threats." Everything that happened this week in the Biden group indicated that this task force may end up looking like a lot of talk with little possibility of action. The White House is in a box -- the bigger they go on guns, the more likely they get nothing done. But the more “incremental” they look in their proposals, the louder the criticism gets from folks like Michael Bloomberg. That said, we’re hearing the White House INSISTS it isn’t giving up on the assault-weapons ban. It might be hard, but the White House isn’t giving up.

*** Chuck & Chuck: Politico writes that Hagel’s confirmation might very well come down to whether or not he gets support from Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. “If Schumer were to oppose Hagel, it would almost certainly amount to a fatal blow to his candidacy since a number of pro-Israel Democrats who are squeamish about the nominee could very well be influenced by the No. 3 Democrat’s position… Still, Schumer could also provide critical support for Hagel’s nomination. Should he support Hagel, it very likely would ride on what the former Nebraska GOP senator eventually says on Israel at an upcoming one-on-one meeting with the New York Democrat and during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee.” But we won’t go as far as Politico does here. Yes, if Schumer ultimately supports Hagel, the former Republican senator will almost be a shoo-in to be defense secretary. But if Schumer votes against, it doesn’t mean Hagel’s chances are dead. In fact, one thing Schumer is UNLIKELY to do is campaign against Hagel. If he’s a “no” on Hagel, he’ll keep it to himself for some time.

*** Colin Powell on “Meet”: Speaking of Hagel, Colin Powell will appear on “Meet the Press” to defend the administration’s nominee to be defense secretary.

*** Is Barney Frank’s campaign backfiring? Finally, yesterday we noted how liberal groups are beginning to coalesce around former Congressman Barney Frank for the interim appointment to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat. But National Journal reports -- and we’ve now heard this, too -- that Frank’s public campaign for the job might not be helping him. “[S]ay Massachusetts Democrats and people close to Gov. Deval Patrick, Frank has undercut his own explicit hopes for the seat likely to be vacated if Sen. John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of State. Frank’s very public lobbying for the job—he disclosed his aspirations on Morning Joe—make Patrick, the man who would have power of appointment, less likely to go along.”

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC, @brookebrower