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First Thoughts: A new controversy facing the Obama administration

New controversy facing the Obama administration: London Guardian reports that NSA has collected Verizon phone records… Questions we have about the story… Is the support for immigration waning or not? New NBC/WSJ poll numbers show a slight majority (52%) favoring a pathway to citizenship… Also from NBC/WSJ poll: Health care law’s unpopularity hits new highs… And Obama heads to North Carolina, to deliver remarks on the economy and education at 2:55 pm ET. 

*** A new controversy facing the Obama administration: The big political story that’s driving the day in Washington comes courtesy of the London Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April. The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’ to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.” While not specifically confirming any aspects of the Guardian story, a senior Obama administration defended the practice. This official maintains the following: 1) Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders (what this appears to be) are classified; 2) the government isn’t listening in on calls -- rather, it’s acquiring data like telephone numbers and lengths of calls; and 3) there’s a “robust legal regime" governing these activities, which includes Congress and the courts. Make no mistake: This will only further the political debate between civil libertarians and the national-security community.  

Sen. Lindsey Graham addresses Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday over a recent report that the NSA is collecting people's Verizon phone numbers.

*** Questions we have: It’s important to note that we don’t have the full story here, but we have plenty of questions. Was Verizon the only carrier issued this order? (Highly unlikely.) Was the motivation behind collecting these telephone records a current national-security threat? Or was it something like building a database -- to be able to pursue future threats? NBC counter-terrorism expert Michael Leiter, on “TODAY”, seemed to hint that this could be more about maintaining a database than anything else. But the fact is, the Obama administration has been silent on this issue for years, which brings up this question: Is this consistent with what Candidate Obama promised in 2007 and 2008? One caveat worth pointing out, however: The 2005-2006 NSA controversy surrounding the Bush administration involved wiretapping, not phone records.  

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama walks down the West Wing Colonnade to announce that current UN Ambassador Susan Rice will replace outgoing National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 5, 2013.

*** Is support for immigration waning or not? Our new NBC/WSJ poll shows a slight majority -- 52% -- saying they favor a proposed pathway to allow undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens. This is a drop from our April poll, when 64% said they supported this pathway. But a note of caution: The wording on our question changed. In April, we asked: “There is a proposal to create a pathway to citizenship that would allow foreigners who have jobs but are staying illegally in the United States the opportunity to eventually become legal American citizens.” In our new poll, we excluded the words “who have jobs.” Our pollsters believe it’s significant that a majority still backs the pathway even after the language change. More importantly, when told in the current poll that the proposed pathway to citizenship includes requirements to pay fines, back taxes and pass a background security check, the percentage favoring it jumps up to 65%, including 58% of Republicans.   

*** Upset or happy if Congress doesn’t pass a bill? But if you’re a supporter of the immigration reform legislation, you might be a little troubled by this finding: Respondents are divided if they want Congress to pass a bill this year. Per the poll, 47% say they would be upset if Congress doesn't pass a bill, and that includes a majority of Democrats (54%). But an equal 47% say they wouldn't be upset if Congress doesn’t pass immigration legislation, and that includes a majority of Republicans (53%). (Strikingly, the partisan divisions have flipped since this question was last asked in 2006, when former President George W. Bush was supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Back then, more than six-in-10 Republicans said they would be upset if immigration reform didn't pass, and an almost equal percentage of Democrats -- who were out of power in the White House -- said they wouldn't be upset. Yet note that there’s not a whole lot of intensity to these current immigration numbers: 21% said they would be VERY UPSET if Congress doesn’t pass legislation, and 26% said they would be NOT AT ALL UPSET if that happens. But compare that to a gun question we also asked: 34% said they would be VERY UPSET if Congress doesn’t pass a background-check law, versus 31% who said NOT AT ALL UPSET. Bottom line: The immigration debate isn’t as highly charged as the gun debate.  

*** Health care law’s unpopularity reaches new highs: Meanwhile, just months before President Barack Obama's signature health-care law fully goes into effect next year, it remains unpopular with the American public, according to the new NBC/WSJ poll, with 49 percent saying they believe the law is a bad idea. That’s the highest number recorded on this question since the poll began measuring it in 2009. Just 37% say the plan is a good idea. The poll also finds that 38 percent say they and their family will be worse off under the health-care law, which also is the highest percentage on this question that dates back to 2010. By comparison, 19% say they'll be better off, and 39% say the law won't make much of a difference. The poll, however, shows deep divisions by political party and health insurance status. By a 35%-to-11% margin, Democrats say they'll be better off under the health-care law. But Republicans say they'll be worse off, 67% to 4%. What's more, those who currently don't have health insurance have a more positive view of the health-care law than those who have insurance -- either through individual purchase or through their employer. Bottom line here: The Obama White House has a massive PR problem with health care. The biggest reason: Opponents of this law have been very vocal, while supporters have done very little to drum up support. The president doesn’t sell it that often, and many arms of the Democratic Party essentially avoid it. Politics abhors a vacuum, and opponents -- not supporters -- have filled the health-care vacuum. 

*** Carolina in mind: Lastly, President Obama heads to Mooresville, NC, where he’ll deliver remarks on the economy and education at 2:55 pm ET. Per the White House, Obama “will travel to Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, North Carolina, to deliver remarks and see first hand the school's cutting edge curriculum that maximizes the benefits of technology and digital learning.”  

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