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First Thoughts: Two differing views on Gates' memoir

How you view Gates’ memoir might depend on your point of view … Tell-alls can shape a legacy, and legacy-watching/lame-duck status is something the White House wants to avoid … Don’t overlook the 2016 impact – with Biden, it’s personal, and for Clinton, it plays into a stereotypical Clinton narrative … Don’t be surprised if unemployment benefits pass the House (but not without being paid for) … Wrapping the commemorative ‘War on Poverty’ events … Democrat leads by just 22 votes as Virginia state Senate control hangs in the balance … Don’t sleep on House GOP primaries.

Charles Dharapak / AP

FILE - In this June 15, 2011, file photo, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testifies regarding the Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 budget request before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense on Capitol Hill in Washington. Gates asserts in a new memoir that President Barack Obama grew frustrated with U.S. policy in Afghanistan and that Vice President Joe Biden has been wrong on nearly every foreign policy and national security issue. He also accuses members of Congress of inquisition-like treatment of administration officials. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

*** Two differing views on Gates’ memoir: Your view of Robert Gates’ critical book on Obama’s national security team and policies and Washington-at-large largely depends on your views of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – and this president. (Just look at the difference between how Bob Woodward framed his book review versus how the New York Times did it…). But leave that aside Let’s focus on the near term: This book also comes right when the U.S. is trying to forge a post-2014 security deal with Afghanistan and its outgoing leader Hamid Karzai. Here’s Gates’s assessment of the president after the troop surge in Afghanistan, per the Times: “As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” If you’re a supporter of continued American involvement in Afghanistan, Gates’ opinion leads you to believe Obama wasn’t committed enough to the war and that lack of commitment has only led to the uncertainty on the ground. But if you’re an opponent or someone who’s skeptical of long-term U.S. involvement, you’re thinking, “I’m glad Obama had doubts about the war, his generals, and Karzai” One of the things President Obama’s got to get done in the first three months of this year is the security forces agreement with Afghanistan. Gates’ revelations about how Obama felt about the war are not shocking to anyone who has followed Obama closely. We know he felt boxed-in and cornered by the generals at the time on the way forward, which led to increased distrust between the Pentagon and the White House. As one insider at the time told one of us, they knew how the perception that Pentagon was putting the president in a corner on the Afghanistan surge leave a mark and lead to more distrust as Gates now tells all. It’s also why we have Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense today…

Former senior adviser to President Obama and NBC News senior political analyst David Axelrod says he was surprised by the criticism from former Defense Secretary Bob Gates about the White House administration in an upcoming memoir.

*** Tell-alls can shape a legacy: One other aspect of Gates’ book, though, is that it comes at a critical time for this president as he fights lame-duck status and tries to hold off on the legacy conversations. But the fact is tell-all books from insiders have a unique way of shaping a presidency, because they tell you information about someone at the highest levels of power, someone heavily guarded personally, and who has an entire spin machine everyday trying to tell you their polished-up version of events. In his sixth year of his presidency, the president is desperate to not look like a lame-duck and preserve his ability to run the town, but it’s a challenge, and this Gates book is a new distraction that doesn’t help one bit.

*** But the more immediate impact is on 2016: While there is a LOT more to the Gates book than just the Obama years (remember he was Bush’s last Defense secretary too!), what he says about some 2016 candidates is going to leave a mark. Gates was harshly critical of Vice President Biden and largely supportive of Hillary Clinton, though he played into a narrative that is Clinton’s ultimate weakness – that the Clintons are willing to say and do anything to win (more on that below). First, of Biden, Gates calls him a “man of integrity,” but said this: “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Ouch. That might explain why, as the RNC points out to reporters, the White House is allowing still photographs of President Obama’s weekly lunch with Biden. Still, Gates’ critique comes across as more personal than anything else. And we’ve been hearing from Day One that Biden and Gates are like oil and water. They’ve never seen eye to eye. One is a hugger; one is VERY reserved. So, they are different personalities, and just never meshed. Gates has never been a Biden fan.

*** Playing into the Clinton stereotype: Yet maybe the most intriguing 2016 comments concern Hillary Clinton, whom Gates praises in his book. “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary,” according to the Washington Post’s account. The focus here is Clinton putting politics before military/national security judgment. But ask yourself this: Will the 2007 Iraq surge be an issue come 2016, especially when nearly six in 10 believe the Iraq war wasn’t worth it? And accusing a politician of acting politically is like accusing a car salesman of being a salesman, right? At the same time, this fits into the preconceived notion that Clintons will do and say anything to win, and the right is pouncing on it. It’s one example of the challenge Clinton has in front of her. Right now, the Democratic Party is moving to left of the Clinton brand. Gates says she did something uncomfortable for her -- being against the surge and admits politics dictated it. This goes to the heart of her biggest weakness as the DeBlasio-Warren wing gains traction in Democratic politics. She has done a lot of work to heal the wounds of 2007-2008 in trying to build trust with the left. How does she keep that wing from splintering? How does she make sure the left trusts her? How does she assure them when she reached out to them, she’s sincere? It’s not helpful. It’s something she has to figure out how to shake.

*** Nobody likes Congress: Gates’ toughest words are reserved for Congress, however. Per his excerpt in the Wall Street Journal: “Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly. I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.”

*** Pay now or pay later: Speaking of Congress, the three-month extension of unemployment benefits (surprisingly) passed the Senate 60-37 yesterday with six Republicans breaking ranks (more than expected). But the new year in Congress is the same as the old – something passes the Senate, but it’s future remains unclear in the House. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has indicated a willingness to consider an extension, but he wants it paid for and would like something done perhaps on energy jobs. Yesterday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) seemed to express openness to entertaining “pay-fors.” There seems to be a will to get this done. Sometimes you can tell when something’s going to be done for political purposes, and this looks like it’s going to get done somehow. The Senate passing it does put some pressure on the House, mostly from an optics perspective. It was interesting to see that there are at least some in the party who know this empathy gap that the GOP faces on these kinds of issues is a problem and they want to do something about it.

*** Remembering LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’: With today being the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson launching his “war on poverty,” there are numerous events tied to that historical event. At 2:30 pm ET, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivers a speech on economic mobility and the American Dream, and he declared the “war on poverty” a failure, according to a  video he released over the weekend. (The Super PAC American Bridge, which supports Democrats, goes after Rubio saying he’s “thirsting for new ideas on poverty.”) Relatedly, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gives a speech on education at 2:00 pm ET at the Brookings Institution, where he is expected to talk about the need for vouchers. On the other side, the Congressional Black Caucus holds an event with Lynda Johnson Robb, LBJ’s daughter, marking the anniversary at 10:30 am ET. Maybe the fairest assessment of the “war on poverty” launched 50 years ago came from the New York Times over the weekend. “The poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations, and 46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate. But looked at a different way, the federal government has succeeded in preventing the poverty rate from climbing far higher. There is broad consensus that the social welfare programs created since the New Deal have hugely improved living conditions for low-income Americans. At the same time, in recent decades, most of the gains from the private economy have gone to those at the top of the income ladder.”

*** Laying the groundwork on NSA reforms: Obama meets “with the leaders of the Intelligence Community and separately with the members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board” before meeting with congressional leaders Thursday, per NBC’s Kasie Hunt. We know the president will be giving a speech some time next week on the new reforms proposals, but we don’t know the day yet.

*** Virginia state Senate control hangs in the balance: By the way, with two Virginia state Senate elections to replace newly elected Democrats – Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring – control of the state Senate is up for grabs. Last night, was the first of those elections – to replace Northam and the Democrat in the race, Lynwood W. Lewis leads by just 22 votes (!!!) out of 22,000 or so. That means ANOTHER recount in Virginia. To take control of the Senate, Democrats need to win that race and the one to replace Herring on Jan. 21st. That would result in a tied Senate with the Lt. Gov. Northam being the tiebreaker.

*** Don’t sleep on the all of the House GOP primaries: Turning to midterm news, all of the GOP primary battles in Senate contests have been well documented (although this week we took the Enzi-vs.-Cheney race off the table). But what has received less attention are some of the GOP primaries in key House races. Indeed, more than half of the National Republican Campaign Committee’s “Young Gun” candidates are locked in primaries -- and in some cases against a fellow “Young Gun.” And about half of the most vulnerable House Democrats running for re-election in 2014 are facing Republican challengers locked in a GOP primary. But the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman believes that these Republican primaries could ultimately influence just a handful of general-election contests. “It will only be a problem for Republicans if problematic candidates emerge -- and so far there are only a few primaries brewing where there is a ‘problem’ on the horizon,” Wasserman emails First Read.

*** Ose can you see? Speaking of those House GOP primaries, former Congressman Doug Ose -- who’s running one of them for the right to challenge Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) -- is up with a new video that’s critical of Washington and the Obama administration. “One of the biggest problems in Washington today is that there’s too many people on both sides of the aisle who sit there and say, ‘Give me everything I want, or I’m not going to give you anything.’… That’s why I’m running for Congress. I don’t think the people in there right now representing this area are up to the task.”

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