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First Thoughts: Universal, bipartisan praise for Mandela -- when that wasn't always the case

Universal, bipartisan praise for Mandela after his passing -- when it wasn’t always the case… Cincinnati-area focus group: Voters angry with Washington, down on Obama, and feeling helpless in fixing things… November jobs report: Employers add 203,000 jobs and unemployment rate falls to 7.0%. (Is the slowly but surely improving economy the political story folks aren’t paying enough attention to?)… Wrapping up Obama’s interview on MSNBC’s Hardball… Scott Brown’s appears to confuse Massachusetts for New Hampshire… And de Blasio’s deft political move in hiring Bratton as his police commissioner.

As Americans reflect on the legacy of the former South African president, NBC's Andrea Mitchell takes a look back on the struggles and controversy Mandela faced on the global stage, including his time as an enemy of the United States.

*** Universal, bipartisan praise for Mandela -- when that wasn’t always the case: For a Washington that’s deeply divided on almost every issue, Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday was a unifying event. The praise for the late South African leader was immediate and bipartisan. “We have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth,” President Obama said yesterday afternoon. “Nelson Mandela was an unrelenting voice for democracy and his ‘long walk to freedom’ showed an enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity,” House Speaker John Boehner added. And here was the Republican National Committee’s Reince Priebus: “His legacy is defined by doing what others declared impossible, most notably fighting the evil of apartheid and beginning the healing of a nation.” But as universally praised and beloved as Mandela is now, anyone who was politically aware in the 1980s or 1990s knows that always wasn’t the case. After all, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan vetoed legislation -- which Congress overrode -- punishing South Africa for its racial apartheid. A lot of it had to do with Cold War mentality at the time; some viewed Mandela as on the wrong side of that fight. But it’s all a reminder how the passage of time and history can transform a one-time controversial figure into a political saint, and vice-versa. But it’s also a lesson that sometimes a policy of the moment will end up being embarrassing; politicians today ought to think about what a policy decision in the moment will look like a generation later.  

Independent voters sat down with NBC pollster Peter Hart in Cincinnati last night to talk about their frustrations with politicians in Washington.

*** “The system doesn’t work”: If you follow American politics and look at any polling, you know that Washington right now is about as popular as New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez at a Boston Red Sox convention. But a focus group of 11 Cincinnati-area voters -- conducted Wednesday night by NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) -- further drives home the message that Americans believe Washington is broken. As NBC’s Carrie Dann, who covered the focus group writes, “America has met the enemy, and it is Washington.” Here was Terry Hartley, 63, a retired Romney voter: If members of Congress spent some time in his shoes, Hartley said, "I would hope that they would care more about the people they represent." He added, "That's what upset me so much about the shutdown. It's like they didn't care." Here was Brigid Brennan, a 51-year-old Obama voter, who said this about Washington politicians: "I think they were selfish. It's sad that we can't discuss things and come to a conclusion." This is how Hart summed up the attitudes: "They're indicting the president, they're indicting Congress," he said. "It is a sense that the system doesn't work, and they don't have an answer, but they know what they hate."

*** Down on Obama: And as Hart explains, President Obama “took it right on the chin.” Per NBC’s Dann, none of the eight voters who supported Obama in 2012, nor the three who voted for Mitt Romney, described themselves as "proud" or "satisfied" with the president, opting instead for "mixed" or "disappointed." Here’s Brandi Nixon, 34, an African-American nurse assistant who voted for Obama twice, both in 2008 and in 2012: "He's a big disappointment," she said. "He just lost focus. He lost focus on his goals…. He stopped focusing on creating more jobs and fixing the economy." Words used to describe the president, even by those who voted for him last year, included "inexperienced," "powerless," "cautious," "timid" and "overwhelmed." As Hart sums it up, “Yes, they are disappointed with the roll out of health care, this is a major black eye, but it is really more a sense that events are controlling him, rather than.his shaping and leading the country.” You could not walk away from this focus group without realizing the president is losing the faith of the swing voters whom he lured to his side in both 2008 and 2012.

*** Feeling helpless to fix Washington: Perhaps the most interesting finding from the focus group was that the participants said they felt helpless in being able to punish Washington. "That's probably the anger and the frustration," said Jeff Brown, a 45-year-old scientist who leans Republican. "It's not easy to do that." Here’s how Hart put the attitudes: "The public has figured out what's wrong," he said. "They can't figure out how to fix it."

*** Thoughts on 2016: With these respondents down on Obama, it was interesting (and maybe not all that surprising) that views of Hillary Clinton couldn’t be higher. As Dann writes, the Cincinnati-area voters described the former secretary of state and potential 2016 candidate as "strong," "vivacious," "powerful," "a great head of state" and "smart." All of the women in the group praised her sense of purpose, although the three Romney voters said they found her "distrustful." It also was interesting that the focus-group participants -- who were politically sophisticated -- had lukewarm feelings about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "Chris Christie was a non-personality," said Hart.  "We talk about him as being big and omnipresent; he was small and insignificant." It’s a reminder that, outside In fact, participants had fuller impressions of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as 2016 contenders, although both elicited mixed reactions.

*** Employers add 203,000 jobs in November, unemployment rate drops to 7.0%: Despite all the political problems Obama has faced over the last month and a half, here’s something that might not be getting enough attention: The economy appears to be a lot stronger than many think. Here are the latest job numbers from the AP: “A fourth straight month of solid hiring cut the U.S. unemployment rate to a five-year low of 7 percent in November, an encouraging sign for the economy. The Labor Department says employers added 203,000 jobs, nearly matching October's revised gain of 200,000. The job gains helped lower the unemployment rate from 7.3 percent in October.” We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: As has been the case over the past two years, the U.S. economy is never as weak as many think it is -- but it also isn’t as strong. This also was a finding from the Cincinnati focus group: There was a belief that the economy is getting better…

*** Obama plays “Hardball”: Also yesterday, President Obama sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. The dispatch from NBC’s Mike O’Brien: “Republicans ought to be ‘embarrassed’ of their record low productivity during their time in charge of the House of Representatives, President Barack Obama said Thursday. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the president said Republicans shouldered most of the blame for gridlock in Washington, especially as GOP lawmakers tend to the ideological concerns of their party’s conservative flank. ‘They’ve got to be embarrassed,’ the president said on a special edition of ‘Hardball’ that aired Thursday evening. ‘Because the truth of the matter is they’ve now been in charge of the House of Representatives – one branch or one chamber in one branch of government – for a couple of years now. They just don’t have a lot to show for it.’”

*** Massachusetts? Or New Hampshire? Republicans tell us that there’s about a 50%-50% chance that former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) might run for the Senate next year -- in New Hampshire. And so Democrats were delighted about this video -- via the Dem oppo group American Bridge -- of Brown appearing to forget what state he was in while in Londonderry, NH. “What I've heard from the Republicans up here is they're thankful that I've been around for a year, helping them raise money, helping them raise awareness as to the issues that are effecting not only people here in Massachesett--uh, in New Hampshire, but also in Massachusetts, obviously, in Maine.” Ouch.

*** De Blasio’s deft political move in hiring Bratton as his police commissioner: Finally, don’t miss this other news from yesterday: Liberal NYC Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio hired Rudy Giuliani’s former police chief -- Bill Bratton -- as his top police official. The New York Times: “William J. Bratton was named police commissioner of New York City for the second time on Thursday. But it is a different place than the crime-ravaged city he came to in 1994. And he said he was going to be a different kind of commissioner, overseeing a different kind of policing.” It was a pretty deft political move by de Blasio -- it placates those worried about New York returning to the 1980s when it comes to crime. But there’s also Bratton saying that his second go-around won’t be like his stint with Giuliani.

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