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First Thoughts: Obama's big (and important) January

Obama’s big (and important) January… Senate to vote on unemployment benefits (needs 60 to pass) and Janet Yellen confirmation (needs simple majority)… Liz Cheney drops out of WY SEN race… And she preserves her ability to run again… An update on our 10 biggest stories to watch in 2014.

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US President Barack Obama talks to members of the military and their families during a Christmas dinner in Anderson Hall at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, on December 25, 2013.

*** Obama’s big (and important) January: After a polarized, gridlocked and unproductive year when everybody’s poll numbers took a nosedive -- President Obama’s, the Republican Party’s, the Democratic Party’s -- official Washington returns to work. The president is back at the White House after his two-week vacation to Hawaii; the Senate convenes at 2:00 pm ET; and the House returns tomorrow. The question is whether 2014 will be a fresh start, or whether it will be more of the same. And this is especially true for Obama. Make no mistake: This is a big month for the president. There’s the State of the Union on Jan. 28, the push for jobless benefits (more on that below), the NSA reforms he’ll announce next week, and the continued implementation of the health-care law. Indeed, this month could very well be one of his last where he has this much control in setting the agenda. Another way to look at it: January presents him with an opportunity to hit the reset button on his second term. Either January is the start of his political comeback, or it is a missed opportunity -- and perhaps one of his last. 

*** Senate to vote on unemployment benefits, Yellen: At 5:30 pm ET (or after it), the Senate is set to vote on the motion to proceed on the bipartisan effort to extend unemployment benefits for three months. (It also will vote on Janet Yellen’s nomination to be Fed chair). Per NBC’s Kasie Hunt, it’s unclear if the 60 votes are there to clear the procedural hurdle on the unemployment benefits. "Hopefully, we can get four more Republicans," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on CBS' Face the Nation. But, Hunt adds, he noted that Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is a cosponsor of the extension, and that it should be easy to find the four additional GOP votes needed. "Remember, Dean Heller is not some maverick that is out spewing socialism," Reid said. That said, so far, it’s unclear where those four votes would come from -- Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is out, but watch Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona.

*** Liz Cheney drops out of WY SEN race: Late last night, NBC News confirmed the story that Liz Cheney -- daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney -- was withdrawing her primary challenge against Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY). In a statement she released this morning, Cheney cited “serious health issues” to her family as the reason. "Serious health issues have recently arisen in our family, and under the circumstances, I have decided to discontinue my campaign. My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign and their health and well-being will always be my overriding priority.” But her exit comes after she was already trailing Enzi in the polls, after her well-known spat with her gay sister Mary (over gay marriage), after carpet-bagging charges (she moved from Northern Virginia), and after she was unable to pinpoint a fire-able offense the conservative Enzi made (other than his age and mild-mannered demeanor). Bottom line: Cheney came across as a candidate who was entitled to the Senate seat and didn’t figure out a way to earn it. In the process, she made Enzi look like a victim. Why she didn’t wait for him to ultimately retire is a mystery…

*** And she preserves a chance to run again: The good news for Liz Cheney, however, is that she preserves her ability to run again. If she was going to beat Enzi in this primary, it was going to have to be UGLY. And losing would have tarnished her for any future run. How can dropping out help you in the future? Look no further than Andrew Cuomo in New York, who ran a horrible race in 2002, dropped out, and is now the Democratic governor of the Empire State.

*** An update on our 10 biggest stories to watch in 2014: Before the holiday season began, we listed our Top 10 stories to watch in 2014, and here’s an update on each one – including the developments that happened over the break:

1. The midterms: A CNN poll released Dec. 26 found the GOP with the early midterm advantage -- by leading Democrats on the generic ballot, 49%-44%. It was a reversal from October (after the government shutdown), when Democrats had an eight-point edge, 50%-42%. So right now, there’s a much greater chance of Republicans gaining the six Senate seats needed to take back control of that chamber than Democrats picking up the 17 House seats they need to win back that chamber. But it’s early, and we’re believers that the midterm environment isn’t truly locked in until the summer. And keep an eye on the March 11 special congressional election in Florida to fill the seat vacated by the late Rep. Bill Young. A Democratic win in this swing district -- in this environment and after the Dems’ victory in Virginia last November -- has the potential to reshape some of the 2014 conventional wisdom. Yet could 2014 be as simple as whether the GOP successfully keeps health care in the focus, or whether Democrats can get traction on income inequality (or other issues)? Sure looks like it.

2. Can Obama rebound? This is probably a better question to ask after his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. Right now, his approval rating -- via Gallup’s daily tracking poll -- is 40%, and our NBC/WSJ poll from last month had him at 43%. We don’t need to tell you that a president in the low 40s isn’t a good situation for his political party in an election year. Can he get it up to the high 40s? We’ll find out over the next few months…

3. Does the health-care law and website enjoy more success in 2014 than it did in 2013? Statistically, the Obama administration has some success to point to regarding the federal website. After Christmas, it announced that more than 2.1 million Americans had enrolled in a health-care plan, including 1.1 million who did so on the federal exchange. While that 2.1 million number is lower than earlier estimates (not knowing the federal website would be largely inoperable for two months), it’s significantly higher than the roughly 100,000 who had enrolled after October and 350,000 after November. Still, the administration is grappling with headlines like this one from the Washington Post: “HealthCare.Gov defect leaves many Americans eligible for Medicaid, CHIP without coverage.” As Democratic pollster Fred Yang said, “As health care goes, so goes the Obama presidency for next year.” There are already signs of improvement for the health-care website. He’s probably right. The other thing to watch here is the Republican Party: As we’ve pointed out before, trying to repeal a law in the abstract is MUCH more difficult than trying to repeal it when Americans are actually receiving benefits from it.

4. Iran deal: Last month, we wrote that the easy part was the United States and European powers striking an interim deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons. The harder part is forging a long-term deal. And even harder is when members of Congress are trying to impose new sanctions on Iran, which the administration says could undermine the negotiations. “Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday [Dec. 19] that would authorize new economic sanctions on Iran if it breaches an interim agreement to limit its nuclear program or fails to strike a final accord terminating those ambitions,” CNN reported. “The proposal led by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, emerged despite Obama administration appeals for Congress to defer pursuing new sanctions with diplomatic efforts ongoing. The White House said new sanctions would undermine those delicate efforts on the global stage and President Barack Obama would veto the legislation if Congress were to approve it now.”

5. Does the economy continue to improve? The economic statistics during the holiday were very positive: Consumer confidence increased; claims for jobless benefits fell; and the economy grew at a 4.1% increase in the third quarter of last year. In a speech he delivered last Friday, outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke predicted a stronger U.S. economy in 2014

6. Can immigration pass the House? Last week, the New York Times -- following up on previous reporting -- suggested that the prospects for passing some kind of immigration reform are better than some might think. (It’ a view your First Read authors share.) “Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio has signaled he may embrace a series of limited changes to the nation’s immigration laws in the coming months, giving advocates for change new hope that 2014 might be the year that a bitterly divided Congress reaches a political compromise to overhaul the sprawling system.”

7. The 2016 jockeying: Hillary Clinton attended Bill de Blasio’s inauguration, and is set to attend Terry McAuliffe’s on Jan. 11… Politico also reported on Hillary’s shadow campaign… Chris Christie’s own inauguration takes place on Jan. 21, and it includes an event at Ellis Island… But Christie also received A LOT of attention over the lane closures that were allegedly done to punish a Democratic mayor…. Marco Rubio released a video declaring LBJ’s “War on Poverty” a failure (although the Sunday New York Times had a more nuanced look at the war on poverty)… And Rand Paul said that while he’s not against unemployment benefits, “the longer you have it, that it does provide some disincentive to work and that there are many studies that indicate this.”

8. GOP’s ideological civil war (does it continue?): Over the weekend, the New York Times had this piece: “In the year since he stepped down from Congress, Steven C. LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio, has emerged as one of the top generals in the establishment Republicans’ war against the Tea Party. It is a role that has benefited the Main Street Partnership, a corporate-backed advocacy group he runs, and its effort to raise millions of dollars to protect centrist Republicans from Tea Party challengers. It has also helped draw clients to a separate lobbying office Mr. LaTourette and his wife have set up across the street from the Capitol. But this blitz of activity has led to complaints from Mr. LaTourette’s political opponents that under the guise of defending the Republican Party from extremists, he is profiting from his continued presence in the Washington spotlight. In addition, Mr. LaTourette’s activities have raised questions about whether, in his dual roles, the former congressman violated the federal statute that prohibits lawmakers from lobbying on Capitol Hill for a year after leaving office.”

9. The upcoming (and latest) debt-ceiling fight: The Hill reports, “GOP strategists are urging restraint in the upcoming debt-ceiling fight. They are excited by the prospect of reclaiming the Senate in November’s midterms elections but anxious about the party’s capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as amply illustrated in recent campaign cycles.”

10. FL-13 special (If Democrats have ANY chance of winning back the House, they need to win this race): While this story might not impact the eventual winner of the March 11 special election, be sure to read this Tampa Bay Times piece on the secret life/family of the late Rep. Bill Young (R-FL), whose seat this is…

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