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First Thoughts: Beginning to preview Obama's State of the Union

Beginning to preview Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address… POTUS heads to Raleigh, NC to speak on the economy and manufacturing at 1:05 pm ET… Rift inside the Dem Party on free trade?... Why it’s harder for Christie to play the bipartisan card after the bridge scandal… Still, new Q-poll finds Christie’s job-approval rating in the state at 55%... National NBC/Marist poll on Christie to be released later today… Jerry Brown says “no” to 2016, a reminder that Hillary Clinton will probably face little to no serious competition if she runs… Another moderate congressman, Rep. Bill Owens, (D-NY) retires… Rep. Jim Moran does, too… And March’s FL-13 special congressional election is officially set: It’s Jolly vs. Sink.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington January 14, 2014.

*** Beginning to preview Obama’s upcoming State of the Union: Less than two weeks out, the Obama administration already has begun to preview key elements of President Obama’s prime-time State of the Union address on Jan. 28. Last week, the White House designated five “Promise Zone” areas where the federal government will partner with local communities to create jobs (a program he actually previewed in LAST YEAR’s State of the Union). Today, he heads to North Carolina, where he’s announcing an effort to boost manufacturing (though the New York Times reminds us that this is yet another pledge from the 2013 State of the Union). And tomorrow, the White House says, the president will hold an event on expanding college opportunity. “President Obama has a resolution for 2014: that this will be a year of action,” White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a mass email. (Question: Does that mean the previous years were years of inaction?) More Pfeiffer: “The president will use every tool he can to create new jobs and opportunities for the middle class. He will be looking for areas of bipartisan cooperation, but he won't be waiting on Congress to act.” 

President Barack Obama stresses that he is prepared to take executive action in order to push some of his administration's economic policies.

*** “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone”: Obama himself echoed that call to action yesterday. “We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we are providing Americans the kind of help that they need," he said before his Cabinet meeting yesterday, per NBC’s Carrie Dann. "I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone," he added, referring to executive actions his administration can take. This is an acknowledgement that Obama -- now beginning Year Six in the White House -- largely will have to go around Congress to leave an imprint on domestic policy. After all, if Congress can’t pass unemployment benefits, what will it be able to pass? This strategy, of course, has John Podesta’s name written all over it. He ran the Clinton White House in its last few years, and is seen by many Democrats as the person in their party who best understands how to best go around Congress and use executive actions to implement policy -- even if the policy are nothing more than pilot programs, a la today’s event. 

*** Rift inside the Democratic Party on free trade? The Wall Street Journal also has this interesting story on the subject of trade in Obama’s State of the Union. “White House officials crafting President Barack Obama's State of the Union address and his agenda for the year are meeting resistance from congressional Democrats on the thorny issue of free trade… Some Democrats have balked at such proposals, leery of giving the White House what they call a ‘blank check’ that could potentially reward countries that have poor records on human rights and the environment. Others worry that trade deals have eroded labor standards and reduced wages.” You have to assume that ClintonLand is watching this debate VERY CAREFULLY, right? When it comes to trade, it’s the one area, ideologically, where the president is closer to many Republicans than some Democrats. This president, like Bill Clinton, is a believer in aggressively pursuing free-trade pacts. But with a stagnant economy in the heartland of the country, these trade pacts are not nearly as popular as they once were. This could be a heavier lift politically for the president than he realizes. After all, even the Republicans are somewhat divided on trade issues, though less so than the Democrats.  

*** Why it’s harder for Christie to play the “bipartisan” card after the bridge scandal: In his “State of the State” address yesterday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie acknowledged the bridge scandal at the top of his remarks (“mistakes were clearly made”), he pledged to cooperate with “all appropriate inquiries,” and he called on Democrats and Republicans to work together to solve the state’s problems. “Even though the competition among the states is fierce, no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey,” he said. “Let’s do it again.” But here’s where the bridge scandal hurts Christie, even if nothing else is uncovered: It’s now much harder to play the bipartisan card. Yes, he can cite all of his state’s achievements (pension reform, tenure reform, property-tax cap). But to undermine that story, all an opponent has to say is, “Chris Christie’s top aides created a traffic jam to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse him.” By the way, we wrote yesterday that if Christie acknowledged the scandal, he risked making that acknowledgement the headline. So here’s a survey of local headlines: 

Newark Star-Ledger: “After ‘mistakes,’ back to business” 
Courier News: “Christie Addresses Scandal”
The Trentonian: ‘We Let The People Down”
Bergen Record: “Christie tries to move on” 
New York Times: “Noting a Scandal, and Seeking to Move On” 
Philly Inquirer: “Christie Looks To Move On” 

As we expected, by addressing the bridge mess at the top, it dominated the coverage. Then again, some will argue that if he did NOT address it, the headlines would have still been bridge related. But we’ll never know.

*** Quinnipiac poll has Christie’s approval rating at 55%: Meanwhile, in a third poll on Christie this week, a new Quinnipiac survey finds his approval rating at 55% among state voters. That’s a healthy standing for the governor, but it’s down from the high 60s and low 70s from last year (in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy). What’s more, just 40% describe Christie as a bully, versus 54% who see him as a leader. Heads up: Later today, we’ll be releasing a new national NBC/Marist poll on perceptions about Christie in the wake of bridge scandal. 

*** Springsteen, Fallon team up to knock Christie over the politicized traffic jam: And a final point on the bridge scandal: Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon teaming up to parody the Christie administration’s traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge has to sting a bit for Christie, who’s a HUGE Springsteen fan.

*** Jerry Brown says no to 2016, a reminder that it’s more than likely Hillary faces little to no Dem competition if she runs: Here’s something for political reporters and pundits to chew on: It’s more likely that Hillary Clinton would face only gadfly opposition in a 2016 Democratic primary (we’re looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) -- rather than a competitive challenger. California Gov. Jerry Brown has become the latest Democrat to rule out a presidential bid. The Los Angeles Times: “Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday that he will not run for president in 2016, dashing political speculation that he might make a fourth bid for the White House. ‘No, that’s not in the cards. Unfortunately,’ he told reporters at a news conference before brightening about his current job: ‘Actually, California is a lot more governable.’” Already, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has said no. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he won’t run if Hillary does. And while former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is certainly dipping his toes into the presidential waters, he did the same thing regarding the state’s vacant Senate seat -- and remember how that turned out. American politics is full of surprises. But right now, the smart money is on Hillary facing little to no opposition if she runs in 2016.  

*** Another moderate congressman retires: NBC’s Frank Thorp reported yesterday that moderate Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) won’t be seeking re-election this November. Per Thorp’s count, he becomes the 14th member to announce his or her retirement -- nine Republicans, five Democrats. The race to replace Owens will be competitive: Obama won the district in 2008 and 2012, but with just 52% of the vote. Oh, and this just broke at publication time: Another Dem congressman, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), won’t be seeking re-election, so the number is now 15. 

*** FL-13 line-up now set: And speaking of competitive races, we now have our match-up for March’s special FL-13 election: The Republican David Jolly (who won his GOP primary last night) versus Democrat Alex Sink. Republicans have suggested that they are going heavy on Obamacare to win this race. But here’s something to chew on: If Sink wins, it will be the second competitive race in the past few months where Republicans ultimately lost in trying to make the race a referendum on health care. The other race? Last November’s Virginia gubernatorial contest.  

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