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First Thoughts: The subject finally changes for the White House

The subject finally changes for the White House… Why the IRS should have flagged some of the groups applying for tax-exempt status… The Obama-Christie embrace, Part 2… Obama delivers remarks from the Jersey Shore at 1:30 pm ET… McCain in Syria… Why you might want to buy 2016 stock in Scott Walker… Weiner to debate (while Quinn won’t)… And what you might have missed over the long Memorial Day weekend.


President Barack Obama speaks in honor of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on May 27, 2013.

*** The subject finally changes for the White House: The good news for any White House or campaign under siege is that, eventually, the attention always turns to something else. And that appears to be true for the two-week focus on the IRS/Benghazi/leak controversies that had been rocking President Obama and his administration. Before the long Memorial Day weekend, the subject already turned to the president's highly scrutinized national security speech and the Senate Judiciary Committee's passage of the bipartisan immigration legislation. Then over the weekend, Obama traveled to Oklahoma to deliver remarks on the tornado that devastated the community there. And today, he heads to New Jersey to speak on the state’s recovery after Hurricane Sandy (more on that below). Make no mistake: The three controversies aren't going away for the White House; congressional Republicans will guarantee that, and the RNC today takes further aim at the IRS controversy. But the white-hot focus on them has gone away -- that is until any other damaging detail, especially one that's linked to the president or his top staff, surfaces.

*** Why the IRS should have flagged some of the groups: Speaking of the IRS controversy, yesterday’s New York Times made an important point: Many of the groups that were targeted in their applications for tax-exempt status SHOULD have been flagged. The controversy, of course, was that the criteria used by the Cincinnati office were conservative-sounding terms, not liberal-sounding ones as well. “Representatives of these organizations have cried foul in recent weeks about their treatment by the I.R.S., saying they were among dozens of conservative groups unfairly targeted by the agency, harassed with inappropriate questionnaires and put off for months or years as the agency delayed decisions on their applications. But a close examination of these groups and others reveals an array of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials said would provide a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.” The reason: “I.R.S. agents are obligated to determine whether a 501(c)(4) group is primarily promoting ‘social welfare.’ While such groups are permitted some election involvement, it cannot be an organization’s primary activity. That judgment does not hinge strictly on the proportion of funds a group spends on campaign ads, but on an amorphous mix of facts and circumstances.” Meanwhile, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported on “TODAY” that critics are howling that IRS official Lois Lerner -- who’s on administrative leave after invoking the Fifth Amendment -- is still getting paid.

*** The Obama-Christie embrace, Part 2: Immediately after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie embraced each other -- and that embrace helped both men politically. For Obama, receiving words of praise from arguably the country’s most recognizable governor (as well as the keynote speaker at the GOP convention!) undercut the Romney/Republican message that the incumbent president was a divisive figure. For Christie, his poll numbers skyrocketed after Hurricane Sandy, even among Democrats in the blue state of New Jersey. And the two men reprise their embrace today, as Obama visits the Jersey Shore, where he will speak at 1:30 pm ET on its recovery after Hurricane Sandy. Once again, the two men standing together helps both of them, at least in the short term. For Obama, the trip allows him to talk about the economy, the importance of government assistance after a disaster, and bipartisan cooperation. For Christie, the visit only benefits him as he seeks re-election in a state Obama won by nearly 18 percentage points in 2012; in fact, 42% of Obama voters are already supporting Christie’s re-election bid, per an NBC/Marist poll from earlier this month. Long term, Christie’s appearance with Obama could be a problem (remember Charlie Crist?), but first thing’s first for the New Jersey governor -- he’s up for re-election this year. 

*** McCain in Syria: On “TODAY” this morning, NBC’s Richard Engel covered Sen. John McCain’s trip yesterday to Syria. “Sen. McCain crossed into Syria from Turkey, accompanied by the Free Syrian Army -- the rebel faction he wants the U.S. to support with arms and a no-fly zone. (Washington already supplies the Free Syrian army with food and medicine.) McCain met with Salim Edris, the Free Syrian Army's general commander, who spoke exclusively to NBC earlier this month.” Engel adds, “Idris is a moderate, and the McCain trip, in part, seemed aimed at highlighting him as moderate partner in a conflict where White House officials have suggested there's no one it trusts enough to fully support. Instead the White House is pushing for a negotiated settlement and a U.S.- and Russia-backed conference in Geneva next month.”

*** Why you might want to buy 2016 stock in Scott Walker: Remember when we told you last Thursday not to lose sight on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) speech in Iowa? The Hill: “Walker gave a well-received speech to the Iowa Republican Party Thursday night, and many in the state say he would bring some strong assets to a presidential run. While the beltway presidential buzz has focused on Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Walker’s admirers say his record as a conservative warrior, folksy Midwestern demeanor and big fundraising connections could make him a contender.” And here was Walker’s speech in the Hawkeye State, per NBC’s Alex Moe: “We should look to our states, to our governors, to our state legislative leaders to show the pathway we take not only in our states but in our country to move forward,” the Wisconsin governor told more than 600 people in attendance at the annual Polk County GOP dinner. “Optimism, relevance, and courage I think are the three keys to success in 2014, 2016 and beyond.”

*** Weiner to debate (while Quinn won’t): In New York City, Anthony Weiner will participate in a mayoral debate today on education, while front-runner Christine Quinn won’t. “Christine Quinn's decision to skip an education debate tomorrow has infuriated its organizers, who say she is backing out to avoid attacks by her opponents and the left-leaning crowd,” the New York Daily News writes. “Quinn - whose camp denies the charges -- had appeared on the list of confirmed attendees last week, alongside rivals Bill de Blasio, John Liu, Bill Thompson and Sal Albanese. Newly-minted candidate Anthony Weiner late yesterday also agreed to be part of the debate, sponsored by a coalition of parents and education advocacy groups called New Yorkers for Great Public Schools.” The one-hour debate takes place at 4:00 pm ET at NYU’s Kimmel Center.

*** What you might have missed over the Memorial Day weekend: On Friday, the left, right, and center reacted to the national security speech Obama delivered the day before… On Saturday, the New York Times reported on divisions inside the GOP when it comes to budget negotiations with Democrats… On Sunday, Obama traveled to Oklahoma to speak after the devastating tornado hit the state earlier in the week… And on Monday at Arlington National Cemetery, the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gave a Memorial Day speech.

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