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First Thoughts: Putting things into perspective

Oklahoma disaster puts current Washington politics into perspective… Obama delivers statement on tragedy at 10:00 am ET… That said, there will be an inevitable fight over disaster relief… Three polls, three matters of consensus on the three controversies hitting the Obama administration… 1) The public believes there was wrongdoing; 2) that hasn’t affected Obama’s political standing; and 3) there’s a huge partisan divide… Senate Finance Committee holds IRS hearing at 10:00 am ET… Conservatives come out against immigration reform… And two stories to watch in tonight’s LA mayoral run-off.

Gene Blevins / Reuters

People walk near destroyed buildings and vehicles after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., near Oklahoma City, May 20, 2013.

*** Putting things into perspective: The massive and powerful tornado that ripped through Moore, OK on Monday afternoon puts so much of Washington’s focus over the past two weeks -- on the IRS, Benghazi, and the leak investigations -- into perspective. Oklahoma officials, for now, have put the death toll at 51 individuals (at least 20 of whom are children). “To me, this is bigger than anything I’ve ever seen,” Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said on “TODAY” this morning, and she added that includes past tornados and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. (This is an area of the country that has seen its share of destruction over the last 20 years.) President Obama, who already signed a disaster declaration for Oklahoma, delivers a statement around 10:00 am ET on the devastation, per NBC’s Kristen Welker. And the politics of disaster relief and federal assistance has already made an appearance. Yes, there are still legitimate questions to ask regarding the three controversies facing the Obama administration. And, yes, those stories aren’t going away (in fact, the Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing at 10:00 am ET on the IRS’s targeting of conservative-sounding organizations filing for tax-exempt status). But right now, they take a pause.

*** The inevitable battle over disaster relief: Given the previous fight over federal-relief funding after Hurricane Sandy, it was inevitable that the politicization of this Oklahoma disaster would take place. And it has already begun. CQ Roll Call: “The tornado damage near Oklahoma City is still being assessed and the death toll is expected to rise, but already Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says he will insist that any federal disaster aid be paid for with cuts elsewhere. CQ Roll Call reporter Jennifer Scholtes wrote for CQ.com Monday evening that Coburn said he would ‘absolutely’ demand offsets for any federal aid that Congress provides.” Coburn’s position is consistent with his vote on Sandy relief -- he voted no on federal funding late last year, as did Oklahoma’s other senator, James Inhofe. And three of the state’s five congressmen voted no, too (Bridenstine, Mullin, Lankford), while the other two voted for the relief (Cole, Lucas). Keep an eye on Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) in this. He has been a bridge between the establishment and conservatives on issues like Sandy relief and the fiscal cliff. He’s got a lot of credibility with a bipartisan swath of members, and he may end up having to do a lot of political legwork to de-politicize this issue.

*** Three polls, three matters of consensus: Turning to the controversies facing the Obama administration, we now have the results from three different polls (CNN, Pew, WaPo/ABC) released in the last 36 hours. And they provide a consensus on three different stories. One, the public believes there was wrongdoing by the IRS and in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. Two, this belief of wrongdoing hasn’t affected President Obama’s standing (WaPo/ABC has his approval rating at 51%; CNN has it as 53%). A big reason why is the economy: “For the first time since the 100-day mark of Obama’s first term, most say they are optimistic about the direction of the economy. More than half, 56 percent, say the economy is on the mend, the most to say so in polls since 2009,” the Washington Post writes. And three, there is a HUGE partisan divide when it comes to these controversies. According to the Pew poll, 37% of Republicans are following the IRS story very closely (compared with 21% of Democrats and 25% of indies), while 34% of Republicans are following the Benghazi investigation closely (versus 18% of Democrats and 26% of indies). As Pew adds, this level of interest and partisan divide is consistent with past controversies impacting the George W. Bush and Clinton administration; the folks out of power who didn’t like the president in office were always more interested in these controversies. The one exception: The Lewinsky sex scandal, which had more people paying closer attention and almost no partisan divide.

*** Senate Finance Committee holds IRS hearing: As mentioned above, the Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing on the IRS story at 10:00 am, and the witnesses are outgoing IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller, former Commissioner Douglas Shulman, and the inspector general. Given the tragedy in Oklahoma -- and given the president’s remarks around the same time -- this hearing won’t receive the attention it might have. But the Obama White House had it rough yesterday when it dribbled out new information about who knew of the inspector general’s report and when they knew about it. Make no mistake: It’s over something that’s relatively small, when (and who inside) the White House was given a heads up about the IG audit -- after all, there was little the White House could do with the report -- but it made the White House seem not very forthcoming with the press. The White House is acting as if it has a bunker mentality; it’s only dribbling out information if extracted with a specific question. And it’s giving off an impression staffers have more to hide.

*** Bunker mentality and not telling the president: Then there’s the issue that many members of the senior team in the White House knew about the report without telling the president. While it’s understandable they want the president to have plausible deniability about what he knows in the case of an IG report, it feeds the perception that the president is not very hands-on right now. Yes, it’s damned if they do, damned if they don’t -- which is probably why it’s imperative they begin to own these controversies on their terms.

*** Conservatives come out against immigration reform: Per NBC’s Carrie Dann, “Several prominent conservative media figures are backing a new effort by groups who oppose bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, signaling growing willingness from conservative outlets to marshal their audiences against the bill. Signatories on a new open letter to Congress titled ‘The Wrong Way to Reform Immigration” include RedState editor Erick Erickson, radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, and columnist Michelle Malkin. ‘No matter how well intentioned, the Schumer-Rubio bill suffers from fundamental design flaws that make it unsalvageable,’ the letter states. ‘Many of us support various parts of the legislation, but the overall package is so unsatisfactory that the Senate would do better to start over from scratch.’”

*** Two stories to watch in today’s LA mayoral run-off: And there are two stories to watch in today’s run-off contest for LA mayor between City Controller Wendy Greuel (D) and City Councilman Eric Garcetti (D). The first is that Greuel COULD become the city’s first female mayor, although polls (here and here) have shown that Garcetti has a slight lead. The second story is the expected low turnout. As Jessica Taylor writes, "[T]he runoff race between two Democratic candidates isn’t drawing much interest as turnout could reach a record low despite the more than $33 million that’s been spent on the nearly two year-long contest to succeed outgoing Mayor Anthony Villagarosa." In fact, just 21% turned out in the first round of voting. Now this could just be LA being LA, but the low turnout might be something to keep an eye on. Polls close at 11:00 pm ET.

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