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First Thoughts: Obama's last chance to go big

Published at 9:00 a.m ET:  Previewing tonight’s State of the Union: Obama’s last chance to go big… NYT on a bolder, more aggressive Obama… The president’s three economic questions… State of the Union also presents a fresh face for the GOP (Rubio), but it also exposes the party’s lingering warts… Expect Obama to mention North Korea’s nuclear test… Hagel gets his first vote (at committee) today… And drip, drip on Menendez.

*** Obama’s last chance to go big: Here’s a reality about a second-term presidency: You have a narrow window -- at the beginning of the term -- to persuade Congress to do something big. For Ronald Reagan, it was tax reform (which he achieved); for Bill Clinton, it was education reform (which failed); and for George W. Bush, it was Social Security reform (which crashed and burned). And this is perhaps the best way to view President Obama’s State of the Union address at 9:00 pm ET tonight. It is essentially his last chance to lay the groundwork for domestic achievements. In his speech tonight, Obama is expected to push for second term agenda: comprehensive immigration reform, ways to curb gun violence, and his preferences to grow the economy and reduce the deficit. And it’s the issue of the economy where the president will spend a lion’s share of his time.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the importance of Tuesday's State of the Union address.

*** A bit bolder, a bit more aggressive Obama: As the president addresses the nation tonight, the New York Times makes an observation we’ve noted in the past few weeks: Obama, fresh off his re-election, has become a bit bolder, a bit more aggressive president. “[I]t is clear from these personal accounts as well as his public acts, like his bold Inaugural Address, that he has shown an assertiveness, self-possession, even cockiness that contrasts with the caution, compromise and reserve that he showed for much of his first term,” the Times says. “What is not so clear is whether Mr. Obama can parlay this commanding self-assurance — borne of re-election, hard lessons learned and Republicans’ disarray — into victories as he tries to turn Washington away from its obsession with deficit-cutting to a broader progressive agenda. Or will he overreach, alienate some Americans and cement the partisan divide he once promised to bridge?” If Obama’s inaugural address last month was any indication, we can probably expect more new things in tonight’s speech than many might think.

*** The president’s three economic questions: As far as the economic particulars in the president’s speech tonight, we can report that all of his initiatives will fall into three categories to answer three different questions. One, how can the United States create more jobs at home? Two, how does the country get its citizens the skills they need for these jobs? And three, how does the nation help those who are working hard to make a decent living? In essence, this is how the speech will be framed, especially with the looming budget battle over the sequester. For its part, the Republican National Committee is out with a video -- entitled “When in doubt, raise taxes” -- to pre-but Obama’s State of the Union.

*** GOP’s fresh face -- but also lingering warts: Obama, however, isn’t the only one in today’s political spotlight. So is the Republican Party -- with its new hopes and lingering warts. Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio will be delivering the GOP’s response to Obama’s address, and he tells the AP that Republicans want to pursue economic policies to create jobs and cut spending. "We don't just want to be the opposition. We want to be the alternative," he said. The Weekly Standard also reports that Rubio “says he intends to draw on his personal experiences growing up in Florida to explain to the country why Obama’s policies won’t work.” But as the GOP tries to present a new fresh face, tonight’s State of the Union also will highlight many of its current problems. For instance, Rand Paul is delivering the Tea Party’s response to Obama, demonstrating the party’s establishment-vs.-anti-establishment divide. (Wasn’t Rubio supposed to be a Tea Party guy?) In addition, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), who has already called for Obama’s impeachment, is bringing Ted Nugent to the State of the Union, providing an unnecessary distraction for a party trying to become more popular with swing voters. And National Journal reported yesterday that some House Republicans are objecting to the party’s “GOP en Espanol” to distribute Republican reactions to the State of the Union. The program is now limited to a Twitter handle. Dem-leaning American Bridge has a new video emphasizing the divisions within the GOP. The irony is that you don’t need this video; Republicans are emphasizing their own divisions.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during an Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at Joint Base Myer-Henderson in Arlington, Virginia, February 8, 2013.

*** Shall … we … play … a … game? Here’s one topic that Obama might NOT have addressed tonight but now most definitely WILL -- North Korea. Per USA Today, North Korea last night “detonated a miniaturized nuclear device at a northeastern test site, state media said, defying U.N. Security Council orders to shut down atomic activity or face more sanctions and international isolation.” In a late-night statement, Obama said, “This is a highly provocative act that … undermines regional stability, violates North Korea’s obligations under numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, contravenes its commitments under the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, and increases the risk of proliferation.” More from the president’s statement: “Far from achieving its stated goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, North Korea has instead increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.” It’s also reported that the U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting for today.

*** Tonight’s coverage: The State of the Union begins at 9:00 pm ET. But NBC’s coverage kicks off at 8:45 pm ET with a web-exclusive pre-show streaming live on NBCNews.com. The online pre-show and full broadcast will be anchored live from Washington, DC by “NBC Nightly News” and “Rock Center” anchor and managing editor Brian Williams, joined by “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory, “TODAY” co-host Savannah Guthrie, NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd, and chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, as well as Capitol Hill correspondent Kelly O’Donnell inside the House chamber. Also, “TODAY” tomorrow will have an exclusive interview with House Speaker John Boehner.

*** Hagel gets his first vote today: This afternoon, the Senate Armed Services Committee will vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Obama’s next defense secretary, NBC’s Mike Viqueira reports. And yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said a floor vote would take place Wednesday or Thursday. Yet Roll Call notes that GOP senators are vowing to delay a floor vote. Senate Armed Services Ranking Member Jim Inhofe “told the National Review on Monday that he would insist on a 60-vote threshold for Hagel. ‘Hagel may be passed out of the committee, but it’s going to be a long, long time before he hits the floor,’ Inhofe said. ‘We’re going to need as much time as possible, and there are going to be several of us who will have holds.’”

*** A hold can delay -- but not prevent -- a vote: To be clear, however, here’s how what a “hold” is, as defined by the U.S. Senate: “An informal practice by which a senator informs his or her floor leader that he or she does not wish a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration. The majority leader need not follow the senator's wishes, but is on notice that the opposing senator may filibuster any motion to proceed to consider the measure.” In other words, a “hold” is a way for a senator to object. The Senate does a lot of work by unanimous consent -- post office namings, votes on political appointees requiring Senate approval. A hold then can slow down Senate business, because a senator is indicating he or she intends to try and require 60 votes for a bill or, in Hagel’s case, a nomination, to advance. In many cases that threat of slowing things down is enough for a majority leader to pull the legislation because it’s not worth the fight, Senate aides told First Read. But if the majority party wants the fight, and the votes are there in the Senate to overcome a potential filibuster, a hold may slow things down, but it can’t prevent approval.

*** Drip, drip on Menendez: Finally, the Bob Menendez story is officially in the “drip, drip” phase, which is never a good place for a politician. Here’s the New York Times from yesterday: “Senator Robert Menendez sought to discourage any plan by the United States government to donate port security equipment to the Dominican Republic, citing concern that the advanced screening gear might undermine efforts by a private company — run by a major campaign contributor and friend of his — to do the work. The intervention with the Department of Homeland Security last month came even though Mr. Menendez has publicly chastised the Obama administration for not doing more to combat the surging drug traffic moving through Dominican ports. And it came shortly after the senator’s friend, Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, arranged to meet with a senior State Department official, accompanied by a former aide to Mr. Menendez, in a related push to protect the port security contract, which is worth as much as $500 million over 20 years.”

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