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First Thoughts: Elkhart (and America) four years later

Elkhart four years later … State of Union stronger, but not as strong as it could be … It’s still the economy … Obama under 50% in latest polls … Dems plan to ‘win’ the sequester … Bipartisan gun deal? … Breannan pressed, but could teach Hagel a thing or two … Dempsey ‘surprised’ Clinton didn’t know about Benghazi cable.

Published 9:45 a.m. ET -- *** Elkhart (and America) four years later: Exactly four years ago tomorrow, President Barack Obama -- who had just been sworn in for his first term -- traveled to Elkhart, Ind., to sell his economic stimulus. At the time, Elkhart had a sky-high unemployment rate(19.4% as of Feb. 2009) due  in large part to the city’s reliance on the manufacturing industry (especially the making of recreation vehicles). “I promised you back then [in 2008] that if elected, I'd do everything I could to help this community recover, and that's why I came back today, because I intend to keep my promise,” Obama said. Because of that promise, NBCNews.com began a series called “The Elkhart Project” chronicling the city’s recovery. Four years later, with Obama set to deliver his latest State of the Union address on Tuesday, Elkhart is pretty much the story of America: Things are better, but not back to where they were before the economy crashed in 2008. Elkhart’s unemployment rate is now 9.3%, down significantly from its peak in ’09, but below the state (8.2%) and national average (7.9%). “We’re definitely not where we want to be, but we have certainly rebounded from where we were,” said Barkley Garrett, the city’s economic development director. “All in all, considering where we were, we are doing well. But we have a long way to go.”

Aug. 5, 2009 (archival video): NBC's Chuck Todd poses questions to President Obama about the economic realities that most Americans, particularly those in economically hard-hit Elkhart, are facing during the recession. President Obama spoke at Wakarusa, Indiana announcing federal grants to support hybrid RV and pick-up manufacturers.

*** The State of the Union is stronger -- but not as strong as it could be: Speaking in Elkhart four years ago, the president acknowledged that full economic recovery would take time. “Even with this plan, the road ahead won’t be easy. This crisis has been a long time in the making; we’re not going to turn it around overnight,” he said. “Recovery will likely be measured in years, not weeks or months.” We now begin Year Five of America’s road to recovery. The state of the union -- at least economically -- is stronger than it was four years ago. But it also would be a stretch to say it’s as strong as it could be.  

*** It’s still the economy: Despite the focus on guns and immigration, the economy remains the biggest story. And with analysts believing unemployment will remain in the mid-7% range into next year, the philosophical fiscal divide in Washington, mirrored across the world, will continue. There’s been no bridging the conservative view that austerity measures/spending cuts, especially in the public sector, to reduce the debt will lead to growth and the liberal view that more temporary deficit spending is necessary to provide support to a fragile economy -- and that those public-sector cuts are a big part of what's holding the economy back.

*** Not great news for Obama in latest polls: The president’s approval rating in a round of polls after his reelection showed Obama over 50%. Well, this morning the president’s approval is under 50% in both a new FOX poll (49%) and Quinnipiac poll (46%). The FOX poll also shows pessimism continues to reign.

*** Democrats plan to “win” sequester: Part of Obama’s State of the Union is going to be the sequester, Politico notes, and pushing for ending loopholes for the wealthiest, something Democrats believe they have broad support for: “Senate Democrats are digging in against Republican calls for deeper spending cuts by bringing out some of their favorite punching bags: corporate jets, Wall Street and Big Oil. With the automatic budget cuts in the sequester coming up next month, Democrats hope to vote on an alternative plan to raise taxes on some of their favorite boogeymen in hopes of shifting the blame when the GOP inevitably rejects it. … The Democratic public pressure campaign is expected to begin in earnest next week, starting with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday and a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing expected Thursday at which senior administration officials will most likely sound the alarm that so-called sequestration cuts would devastate the economy. … According to sources familiar with the matter, Democrats are leaning toward a plan that would be split 50-50 between spending cuts and tax hikes, financed in large part by new taxes on corporate and wealthy taxpayers.”

*** Bipartisan gun deal emerging? Guns is also likely to be a topic, and AP reports that there’s a bipartisan private group that is aiming at forging a deal expanding background checks and working on mental health issues. AP: “A bipartisan quartet of senators, including two National Rifle Association members and two with ‘F’ ratings from the potent firearms lobby, are quietly trying to find a compromise on expanding the requirement for gun-sale background checks. … The senators' talks have included discussions about ways to encourage states to make more mental health records available to the national system and the types of transactions that might be exempted from background checks, such as sales among relatives or to those who have permits to carry concealed weapons, said people who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to describe the negotiations publicly.” The senators involved in the private group include Democrats’ No. 3 Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Republicans Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois. It’s significant that, once again, Schumer’s in the middle of this, positioning himself as a dealmaker. Makes us wonder if Harry Reid’s thinking about retiring before his re-elect in 2016…

*** Brennan pressed, but could show Chuck Hagel a thing or two: The confirmation hearing for John Brennan to become CIA director began with fireworks with Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein needing to shut it down and clear the room after five protests. Eight people were arrested outside. Brennan sparred with senators over drones, torture, leaks, and Benghazi. Some senators disagreed with him and pushed him, especially on interrogation. Some might not be happy with his "I don’t know what the truth is" answer, but he was ready, confident and unapologetic. He acquitted himself much better than Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee to be Defense Secretary. It was a stark contrast. Jill Lawrence, writing under the headline “John Brennan Shows Hagel How It's Done,” called it “a startling 180-degree contrast.”

*** The debate over kill or capture: The Washington Post notes that Brennan was challenged on why “the number of drone strikes has soared while captures of terrorism suspects have dwindled to single digits” under President Obama. “I never believed it's better to kill a terrorist than to detain him,” Brennan said in an exchange with ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). Still, the number of detainees has declined significantly, according to the Post. Is it because of better intelligence? Does it have to do with Obama wanting to avoid detainees? It’s an important question, but one no one with any knowledge is going to answer in public. (Brennan will go at it again in a closed classified hearing with the committee Tuesday.)

*** Dempsey ‘surprised’ Clinton didn’t know about Benghazi cable: Two pieces of news came out of the other hearing on the Hill yesterday before Armed Services with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey: (1) Panetta and Dempsey said they agreed with a Hillary Clinton (State)-Gen. David Petraeus (CIA) plan to arm rebels in Syria, and (2) Dempsey said he was informed of the Benghazi cable requesting more security by the U.S. African Command, that he offered more help, but it was turned down. And then when asked how what he thought about Secretary of State Clinton testifying that she had no knowledge of the cable, he said, “I would call myself surprised that she didn’t.”

*** Obama acknowledges tension with Capitol Hill Democrats: At the House retreat yesterday, the president rallied Democrats about budget cuts and that he’s willing to fight for Democratic values in the court of public opinion with Republicans. “I have to tell you, if that's an argument that they want to have before the court of public opinion, that is an argument I'm more than willing to engage in,” he said to. But he also acknowledged tensions with Capitol Hill Democrats with this: "There will be times where you guys are mad at me, and I'll occasionally read about it." Today, Bill Clinton (10:00 am ET) and comedian Stephen Colbert (!!!) address the group.

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