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First Thoughts: Sequester fight already taking a toll

Sequester fight already taking a toll -- on the American public, on Obama (whose numbers dipped in our new NBC/WSJ poll), and on the GOP (which is about as popular as Carnival Cruise Lines right now)… On CPAC not inviting the most popular Republican in the country… Mr. Secretary: Hagel wins confirmation (but by smallest margin in history for a defense secretary)… John & Lindsey’s Excellent Meeting… GOP denounces racially charged tweet directed at Mitch McConnell’s wife… And Teddy Turner’s -- shall we say -- provocative TV ad against Mark Sanford.

*** Sequester fight already taking a toll… : With Washington now knee-deep in its fifth contentious fiscal fight in two years, it’s hard not to look at our latest NBC/WSJ poll and see the toll it’s taking on everyone, including the American public. Per the poll, 32% believe the country is headed in the right direction, which is down three points from last month and nine points since the election. A majority of respondents (51%) believe the budget negotiations between President Obama and congressional Republicans make them feel less confident about economy, versus just 16% who feel more confident. (That has a DIRECT impact on consumer confidence, folks.) And then look at these headlines from some of the nation’s largest newspapers. The New York Times: “Austerity Kills Government Jobs as Cuts to Budgets Loom.” The Washington Post: “Sequester will sock a vulnerable economy.” By the way, here are the developments in the sequester debate worth noting. One, if there is any movement for a potential compromise, it’s over legislation that would give President Obama the flexibility to make these sequester cuts. But Obama himself said yesterday he doesn’t like this approach, and some Republicans are wary this gives him too much power. And two, it’s Wednesday -- just two days before the sequester cuts are supposed to go into effect -- and there isn’t a single meeting scheduled between the president and congressional Republicans.

*** … on the GOP: Speaking of taking tolls, there’s a sliver of good news for Republicans in our new poll, and there’s also A LOT of bad news. The good news: A majority of Americans (53%) prefer that Congress move ahead with the current sequester cuts or a plan that contains even more cuts, suggesting the public’s general appetite for reducing spending. But here’s the bad news: everything else. In fact, the party is about as popular as Carnival Cruise Lines right now. Only 29% say they agree “with most” of what Republicans in Congress have proposed (versus 45% for Obama and 40% for congressional Democrats). An identical 29% have a favorable view of the GOP (compared with 49% for Obama and 41% for the Dem Party).And the public believes the Republican Party is more interested in partisanship than Obama is. What’s more, the polls shows the Democratic Party beats the Republican Party on almost every issue -- looking out for middle class (by 22 points), Medicare (by 18 points), health care (16), reducing gun violence (15), Social Security (14), immigration (7) and even taxes (3) and the economy (2). The only issues where the GOP holds the advantage in the survey are reducing the federal deficit (by 6 points), controlling government spending (16 points) and ensuring a strong national defense (26). More importantly, in the dozen issues we tested, the GOP’s numbers dropped in most of them even as the Dem number didn’t budge. This is about a party LOSING ground, not about Democrats gaining it.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks about automatic budget cuts set to take effect Friday during an event at Newport News Shipbuilding Feb. 26, 2013 in Newport News, Va.

*** … and even on Obama: But the current debate seems have taken a toll on Obama, too. His overall approval rating stands at a healthy 50%, but that’s down two points since January and three points since December. The percentage approving of the president’s handling of the economy has dropped five points, from 49% last month to 44% now. (It hasn’t been that low since before the 2012 political conventions.) If you saw these numbers isolation, you might say, “This isn’t good news for Obama.” But when you compare them with the Republican numbers, Obama looks like the tall guy attending a short-guy convention. And that perfectly sums up the current political environment (and it also pretty much sums up the 2012 election). That said, while Obama’s numbers have dipped somewhat – albeit within the poll’s margin of error -- strong majorities in the NBC/WSJ poll support the broad outlines of Obama’s top domestic priorities: 54% favor giving undocumented immigrants the ability to apply for legal status (up two points from last month); 61% believe the laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter (up five points since January!!!); and nearly six in 10 support Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage. In particular, the gun-control numbers are pretty striking, and our pollsters say they reflect how presidential leadership can move the needle on issues. And as we found out last night in that special Dem Illinois primary, the issue of guns can win you a race (at least in a deep-blue urban district where there isn’t much evidence of a gun culture, but we digress).

*** On CPAC not inviting the most popular Republican in the country: Want another reason why the Republican Party is having problems right now? Look no farther than the Republicans and conservatives who decided not to invite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference -- due in part to his advocacy for Hurricane Sandy relief as well as his support for some gun-control measures. In our NBC/WSJ poll, no politician has more crossover appeal than Christie does. His overall fav/unfav is 36%-12%; among Republicans, it’s 39%-9%; among Dems, it’s 36%-14%; among indies, 32%-17%; among conservatives, 34%-12%; among Tea Party supporters, 44%-13%; and among liberals, it’s even 33%-17%. Our poll also measured GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who is more popular than Christie among Republicans (47%-7%), conservatives (41%-7%), and Tea Party types (52%-8%). But Rubio’s overall score is lower than Christie’s, 24%-17%. Explaining his group's snub of Christie, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said, “CPAC is like the all-star game for professional athletes; you get invited when you have had an outstanding year.” Umm, then why are Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, Allen West, and even Mia Love all speaking at CPAC? Does losing elections = outstanding years?

*** Meet Secretary Hagel: Christie’s big sin among the CPAC conservatives? He’s extended a welcoming hand to Obama (on Sandy, gun control). And that brings us to another Republican who extended a welcoming hand to the president and more -- Chuck Hagel. Yesterday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Hagel by a 58-41 vote (the smallest margin ever for a defense secretary), and that came after his nomination beat back a GOP filibuster by a 71-27 vote. Per NBC’s Courtney Kube and Jim Miklaszewski, Hagel has already arrived at the Pentagon for his first day on the job. On his agenda is getting sworn in (official photos only), a senior staff meeting, and then an address to Pentagon staff (which appears to be open to the press).

*** John & Lindsey’s Excellent Meeting: Why does immigration reform still look like the best opportunity for a big legislative item to pass through Congress this year? Just note this statement from GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham after yesterday’s meeting with President Obama. "We had an excellent meeting with the president and the vice president … during which we discussed a variety of issues, including our effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year. We were pleased to hear the president state his firm commitment that he will do whatever is necessary to accomplish this important goal." Of course, getting immigration reform through the House – not Senate – will be the chief obstacle, but first things first. Interesting that the statement only mentioned immigration, because we also have learned the sequester standoff also came up.

*** GOP denounces racially charged tweet against McConnell’s wife: NBC's Kasie Hunt notes that a progressive group in Kentucky took heat yesterday from Republicans for a racially charged attack on Sen. Mitch McConnell's wife -- former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. "This woman has the ear of @McConnellPress -- she's his #wife. May explain why your job moved to #China!," the group ProgressKY wrote on Twitter on Feb. 14. The tweet links to a website that alleges Chao, who is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, discriminated against American workers when she served as Secretary of Labor. Republicans denounced the tweet, and the organization eventually apologized. The attack also prompted a tweet from actress Ashley Judd, who is considering a run against McConnell. "Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable," Judd wrote Tuesday afternoon, per Hunt.

*** Teddy Turner’s -- shall we say -- provocative ad against Mark Sanford: Lastly, don’t miss this new TV ad that Teddy Turner is airing against Mark Sanford in that South Carolina congressional GOP primary. Wow.

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