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First Thoughts: Obama set to go big on guns

Obama set to go big on guns… But the opposition will go equally big… NRA -- with its new web video -- brings a sledgehammer to the fight… Sandy relief passes the House (but with just a minority of the majority)… And that’s instructive for the upcoming debt-ceiling fight, because the GOP isn’t united here… Salazar to leave administration in March… And Obama and meeting the press. 

*** Obama set to go big on guns: According to sources familiar with the gun-control recommendations President Obama will unveil today at 11:55 am ET, those recommendations will include a universal background check, prohibition of high-capacity magazines, an anti-trafficking law, and a renewal of the assault weapons ban. In addition, he will announce executive actions such as enforcing the laws already on the books (like prosecuting those who fail background checks), as well as restarting federal research of firearm deaths/crimes. And, the sources say, the recommendations also will touch on mental health, school security (though NOT arming guards), and entertainment/video games.

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Bottom line: Obama is going about as big as he can go, realizing there’s little political downside (at least in the short term). One gun-control advocate tells First Read that the recommendations would be “the most significant reform of our guns laws since MLK and RFK were assassinated” in 1968. 

Alex Wong / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during his final news conference of his first term at the East Room of the White House Jan. 14, 2013.

*** But the opposition will be equally as big: Yet as NBC’s Savannah Guthrie pointed out on “TODAY” this morning, there’s a reason why you have to go back to four decades for the last time Washington tried to go this big: The politics of gun control are incredibly hard. Given that reality, which component becomes the priority for the White House? The background checks, magazine clips, and anti-trafficking might be the ones with the best chance of passage, while the assault ban could be the hardest. So what is the order? And what does the president and congressional Democrats really lean on? Also, what is the president going to say about culture? And finally, does he say anything about the new NRA video that injects his daughters into the debate? “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the video asks. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” This video seems oddly timed and screams “insular.”

*** The NRA brings a sledgehammer to the fight: Indeed, over the past 30 days since the Newtown shootings, the NRA has brought a sledgehammer to the debate, not even attempting nuance or persuasion. First the combative Wayne LaPierre press conference at the National Press Club. Then LaPierre’s uncompromising appearance on “Meet the Press.” And now this web video. The NRA is acting as if this were 2001 -- after beating Al Gore and facing a cowed Democratic Party. Instead, this is 2013 -- after the NRA was unable to beat Obama and after Democrats expanded their majority in the U.S. Senate. The danger the NRA is facing, especially after releasing this new video, is that it’s potentially alienating the handful of Democratic allies it has. The Harry Reids, the Joe Manchins, the Jon Testers. While the NRA has always had a deeper reach within the Republican Party, what has made it particularly powerful is its influence inside both parties (a la AIPAC). But how the NRA has reacted to Newtown may very well have reduced its influence to just one political party. And if they decide to keep their attacks focused on the president, they will end up alienating the rest of the Democratic Party -- and that will cost them down the road. Right now, they are acting like an ideologically driven cog of the conservative movement rather than attempting to persuade or keep its Democratic supporters. 

*** Sandy relief passes the House -- with just a minority of the majority: Last night, the House passed legislation providing an additional $50 billion for Hurricane Sandy relief by a 241-180 vote, according to NBC’s Frank Thorp. But the real story is the vote breakdown: Only 49 Republicans voted for the measure -- so just 20% of the caucus -- while a whopping 179 Republicans voted against the measure. By comparison, 192 Democrats voted for the legislation, and just one (Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper) voted against. So for the second time in the last two weeks, we’ve seen the House pass legislation that isn’t supported by a “majority of the majority.” And what we’ve learned is that House Speaker John Boehner is willing to bring such legislation to the floor if 1) Senate Republicans are nearly unanimous in favor of it, and 2) if a Republican like Chris Christie has access to the New York-area megaphone. 

*** GOP isn’t united on the debt ceiling: So the fiscal-cliff and Sandy-relief votes point to how the debt ceiling might ultimately get raised. During the fiscal-cliff debate, you had Senate Republicans and key conservative opinion leaders arguing that the GOP should cut a deal with the White House. During the legislative fight over Sandy relief, you had Christie and other New York-area Republicans howling. And now with the debt ceiling coming into focus, you’re already seeing some prominent conservative voices -- Peter Wehner, Ross Douthat, Matt Lewis, National Review (to a point), and Americans for Prosperity -- recommending that Republicans shouldn’t wage a battle on this terrain. In addition, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), per the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, believes the debt ceiling must be raised. “Sen. Collins recognizes that the debt ceiling is going to have to be raised because the U.S. cannot default on its obligations to pay for spending that has already occurred,” her spokesman said. “But she is frustrated that the administration, time and time again, keeps putting off the hard decisions on spending that our country must confront.” These are all significant developments, because they suggest the GOP isn’t united in waging a battle over the debt ceiling. And when the GOP isn’t united, Boehner has now shown that he’s willing to break glass and allow legislation to pass without a majority of the majority. Perhaps we’ve seen the near future and how the Republicans end up agreeing to a debt ceiling raise without a battle.

*** Salazar to leave administration in March: NBC’s Kristen Welker is reporting that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will leave the administration in March, according to a senior administration official. So to recap, here are the cabinet secretaries who are remaining: 

Napolitano (DHS)
Duncan (Education)
Vilsack (Agriculture)
Holder (Justice)
Sebelius (HHS)
Shinseki (Veterans Affairs)

And here are the cabinet members leaving, plus their nominated replacements, if applicable:

Hillary Clinton at State (John Kerry nominated)
Leon Panetta at Defense (Chuck Hagel nominated)
Tim Geithner at Treasury (Jack Lew nominated)
Hilda Solis at Labor
Lisa Jackson at EPA
Ken Salazar at Interior  

*** Obama and meeting the press: Earlier this week, Politico noted that the 79 Obama news conferences during his first term (including joint appearances with foreign leaders) are less than every modern president’s since Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush had 89 press conferences during his first term, Bill Clinton had 133, George H.W. Bush had 143, and Reagan 27. In addition, Obama’s had 107 short Q&A sessions with reporters -- versus George W. Bush’s 354, Clinton’s 612, George H.W. Bush’ 313, and Reagan’s 158. What jumps out at us is the comparison between Obama and Reagan; both had fewer press conferences and interactions with reporters. And Josh King, who worked for Clinton, writes that the short interactions with reporters weren’t always helpful. President Clinton loved to talk. Answering questions was to him a balm for whatever press might have gone in a wayward direction during the previous news cycle... In communications parlance, he was ‘stepping on his message.’” But King later observes that, over time, those interactions may have ended up serving Clinton better. As for the Obama and Reagan comparison: The two most disciplined presidents of the last 30 years both believed that the best way to communicate is to TRY and go over the media. 

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