“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, by the NBC News’ political unit. Please let us know what you think.  Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

• Monday, April 17, 2006 | 5:35 p.m. ET
From Mark Murray

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Unwilling to let the White House have the last word on taxes and the economy on this Tax Day (especially with Congress out on Easter recess), Democrats have issued a flurry of press releases to counter President Bush's claims earlier today that his administration's tax cuts have benefited small businesses and have helped the economy.

A statement by the Democratic National Committee noted Bush failed to mention that median household incomes have declined; that health-care costs have skyrocketed; and that gas prices are once again going up.

Meanwhile, Senate Leader Harry Reid's communications office issued a release arguing that most of Bush's tax cuts have actually benefited the rich, not small businesses.

And Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' failed presidential nominee in 2004, wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow making that same point. He asked Snow to make numbers public from a Treasury document entitled "Tax Relief Kit," which liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had used to calculate that the top 1% of taxpayers have received 32% of the tax cuts.

• Monday, April 17, 2006 | 2:35 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

President Bush, joined by Treasury Secretary John Snow, held a roundtable discussion on the economy and taxes with business owners at Europa Stone Distributors today in Sterling, VA.

In remarks after the meeting, Bush touted the benefits of the administration's tax cuts and called on Congress to extend them while cautioning Democrats who want to raise taxes that doing so could hurt the economy. The president linked the cuts directly to the country's economic growth and said the meeting reassured him that his tax relief plan has helped small businesses resulting in small businesses that are more "confident" and help create more jobs.

Complementing their offensive on the economy, the White House released an "economy watch" memo heaped with praise for Bush's tax plan shortly after the event. The memo credits the administration with growing the economy at a "healthy 3.5 percent rate" and adding over 5 million new jobs, "more than Japan and the European Union combined" and keeping unemployment rate at a level that is lower than the average rate from the 1960's through the 1990's.

However, rising gas prices continue to pose one obstacle to the administration's campaign to tout the strong economy.

• Monday, April 17, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
President Bush starts his week the way he ended the previous one: giving a boost to a Cabinet secretary who has come under growing criticism.  At least, it appears that way.  Bush marks Tax Day with an 11:20 a.m. tour of Europa Stone Distributors in the Virginia suburb of Sterling, then takes part in a roundtable on taxes and the economy there at 11:35 a.m.  Although not indicated on Bush's own schedule released for today, per a separate schedule from the White House, he will be joined at both events by Treasury Secretary John Snow. 

When asked earlier this month about Snow's status in his administration, Bush expressed only lukewarm support -- hardly the strong words he used in endorsing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last Friday.  He told reporters that Snow "has been a valuable member of my administration, and I trust his judgment and appreciate his service."   A joint appearance today may be intended to send a message to Snow's critics in Washington and on Wall Street that Bush isn't letting this top Cabinet secretary go anytime soon, either. While the White House ratchets up its efforts to highlight the many strong aspects of the U.S. economy, economic and political analysts continue to suggest that Snow has not been an effective spokesman. 

Since the start of Bush's second term, the economy has added more than 2.5 million jobs (an average of more than 171,000 a month).  But during that same time, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, his approval rating on the economy has plummeted from 47% in January 2005 to 36% last month.  What's going on here?  One reason, besides the war in Iraq potentially affecting people's overall view of him, is that the economy is a mixed bag.  Jobs have been created, unemployment is down, and the Dow has once again spiked above 11,000.  However, the poverty rate has inched up, real median household income has stagnated, and the number of those without health insurance has increased.  As Bush and Snow prepare to tout how the Bush tax cuts have bolstered the economy today, news analyses note that the wealthy and the middle class are paying taxes at close to the same rates, with the effects being felt more by the wealthy than by the middle class.

Indeed, as the case with Iraq, there's enough evidence out there for supporters and opponents alike to use in making their cases.  Will more economy-themed speeches and events help drive Bush's approval rating on the economy upward?  Or, as the case with Iraq has suggested, has public opinion on the economy calcified? 

With Congress out on recess, Bush has the spotlight all week.  On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, he renews his focus on his competitiveness initiative.  His much-anticipated meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, postponed from last September because of Hurricane Katrina, is scheduled for Thursday.  It may be just as well for Bush that Congress isn't in this week, given the protectionist rhetoric coming from the Hill in recent months.

And on Saturday, which is Earth Day, Bush visits California, where he'll fundraise and talk about new fuel technology.  Last week, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running hard to the center in order to win re-election, took a shot at the Administration while unveiling a plan to combat global warming: "I have to say that the federal government has so far fallen short with showing leadership when it comes to the environment."  Schwarzenegger, whose re-election effort is led by former Bush campaign officials, is expected to appear with Bush sometime during his visit.

While Bush focuses on taxes, the economy and trade, Vice President Cheney seems to be picking up the national security baton.  Cheney, who arrived in Washington state last night, appears at a rally with the troops at Fairchild AFB in Spokane at 5:20 pm ET.  He does fundraisers for GOP candidates before and after: a luncheon for House candidate Doug Roulstone in Everett at 3:20 p.m. ET, and a reception for Senate candidate Mike McGavick in Spokane at 8:30 pm ET.  He has another rally with the troops in Kansas on Tuesday.

In New Orleans tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET, the top seven of the 23 candidates for mayor will face off in a nationally televised debate about their visions for the city's future.  The seven include: business lawyer Virginia Boulet (D); Rob Couhig (R), also a lawyer and managing partner of Couhig Investments; Ron Forman (D), president and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute; current Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D); Nagin; Reverend Tom Watson (D), pastor of the Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries; and Peggy Wilson (R), former president of the New Orleans City Council.  MSNBC's Chris Matthews and NBC affiliate WDSU's Norman Robinson will jointly moderate the one-hour debate, which will air live on WDSU and on MSNBC.  The candidates have participated in several forums by now, including in other cities where large numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees have settled, but this will be the first debate that displaced residents around the country can see live.  The primary takes place on Saturday, with a runoff expected between the top two finishers -- one of whom is likely but not certain to be Nagin -- on May 20.

And the 2008 presidential race gets an official candidate today, as former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska announces his campaign for the Democratic nomination.  Gravel is perhaps most famous for entering a large portion of the Pentagon Papers into a Senate subcommittee record and then publishing it.  He also nominated himself for vice president at the 1972 Democratic convention.

It’s the economy ...
As other news outlets did over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times heralds Tax Day with a look at how the wealthy and the middle class are paying close to same tax rates, and how it got to be that way.  One recent cause: "President Bush has achieved something close to the flat-rate structure by cutting tax rates on earned income and particularly on dividends and investment profits."  More: "Flattened, and thus lower, tax rates have contributed to huge increases in the wealth of the wealthy, but so far most people haven't seen significant economic improvement...  Advocates of the flat tax have long argued that it would stimulate economic activity, ultimately benefiting everyone.  Bush shares that view, though he has not officially advocated a flat tax."  Bush's former chief economic advisor warns in the Wall Street Journal that if entitlement spending isn't reduced, as Bush has requested, then taxes will go up. 

Gasoline is trading near a six-month high, primarily because of concerns about Iran. 

Bloomberg previews President Hu's visit: "Bush, under pressure from Congress to get tough with China, needs [Hu's] help to show that it's better to engage than to alienate the world's biggest developing economy...  The Chinese are calling Thursday's meeting at the White House a 'state visit.'  The Bush administration, wary of being seen as too receptive in the current political climate, has refused to grant the trip the coveted distinction." 

The Los Angeles Times casts the onus as being more on Hu: "Most analysts say major progress on economic issues is unlikely, but the Chinese have been doing what they can to sweeten the atmosphere." 

Disaster politics
Beyond how the frontrunning candidates propose to rebuild the city, one which they'll be asked go into detail during tonight's debate, the biggest question of the unprecedented mayoral election in New Orleans is how many displaced residents will vote, "first and foremost, because it will provide the first real measure of how many former residents of New Orleans still feel consider themselves to be residents, regardless of where they currently live.  And second, because the vast majority of residents who have left the city and not yet returned are African-American, and unless they vote in significant numbers, this election is expected to show that this formerly majority-black city is now majority-white," MSNBC.com says .  "And if they don't vote in large numbers, will it be "because they wanted to vote but weren't able to because they were disenfranchised, or because they just didn't want to vote?...  Over 13,300 current and displaced residents of the city have cast ballots after a week of early voting.  Those numbers are hardly a dent in a city that is now estimated to be home to 297,000 registered voters." 

The Times-Picayune

previews tonight's debate, and also looks at how a "cordial -- some say lackluster -- ...contest has erupted into a

street brawl

."  With less than a week to go until the primary, other

news organizations

are focusing on how race has become a hallmark of the contest. 

Security politics
USA Today rounds up Sunday-show appearances by a handful of retired generals who said Rumsfeld "should not be pressured to quit in wartime, even as three of them accused him of leadership and management errors in Iraq." 

More retired generals also defend Rumsfeld on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page. 

Some prominent Republicans are also talking up the importance of civilian control of the military. 

At the same time as Gen. Richard Myers defended Rumsfeld on the Sunday talk-show circuit, the New York Times says Myers also criticized the civilian leaders who rebuked former Army chief Gen. Eric Shinseki.  “The clash between General Shinseki and the civilian Pentagon leadership still rankles some of his former colleagues.  And it goes to the heart of recent complaints that Mr. Rumsfeld and his top aides disregarded calls for more troops even before the invasion began.” 

Bloomberg says Rumsfeld "will be permanently damaged by failed U.S. planning for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion even if he survives calls for his resignation from seven former military commander."  Presidential candidate and "Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia said Bush may be the real target of Rumsfeld's critics."  The story notes that Bush, in addition to being "known for his loyalty to advisers and resistance to pressure from critics," "may also be reluctant to make a change because any Senate confirmation hearing for a successor would inevitably become a high-profile debate about the war's course." 

The Wall Street Journal sees other "signs that [Rumsfeld's] firm grip on the Defense Department is slipping as some uniformed officers increasingly chart their own course.  Well before the recent call... for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, there was an increasing challenge to his ideas about warfare from within the senior officer ranks...  While there is no sign the military leadership inside the Pentagon is ignoring or defying Mr. Rumsfeld's orders, senior military officials in a number of cases seem more willing to go their own way."  The story notes that "Mr. Rumsfeld still has many staunch defenders in the Pentagon's civilian and military ranks." 

"U.S. military deaths in Iraq have increased sharply in April after reaching the lowest level in two years last month.  The increase was fueled largely by recent fighting in volatile Anbar province, west of Baghdad."

The New York Sun obtains a copy of the State Department memo at the heart of the Valerie Plame leak investigation.  The memo "appears to offer no particular indication that Ms. Plame's role at the agency was classified or covert." 

The immigration debate
In his Sunday column, Bob Novak wrote that the “talk of Washington during the first week of the congressional Easter recess was how Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid has seized control of the Senate despite a 10-seat advantage by the Republicans” -- by blocking legislation on both immigration reform and asbestos litigation reform.  “No minority leader has so dominated the Senate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1953-54.” 

The Republican National Committee picks up where the White House left off last week, hammering Reid for leading his party in allegedly obstructing immigration reform.  A new RNC radio ad airs this week on Spanish-language stations in Phoenix, Tucson, Reno and Las Vegas.  The ad accuses Reid of "playing politics" while "President Bush and Republican leaders work for legislation that will protect our borders and honor our immigrants."

Per the Chicago Tribune, the compromise immigration legislation in the Senate has several “unrealistic” provisions that were inserted “to placate tough-on-immigration senators.”  They include a requirement that immigrants have a background check before receiving their papers, even though the federal government is already struggling with its workload.  In addition, there’s a measure mandating that those who apply for guest-worker status, no matter where they live, must do so at a port of entry along the border. 

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
With Josh Bolten now officially chief of staff, the AP says Bolten "has the flexibility to make big personnel moves.  The first announcements could be made early next week, focused on who will fill key vacancies, such as Bolten's old job as budget director...  Other changes could follow soon after.  Republicans close to the White House anticipate adjustments in Bush's congressional relations, communications, and economic teams.  There appeared to be a firewall around political operations, led by deputy chief of staff Karl Rove." 

The spokesperson for the lead organization criticizing Bush's Medicare prescription-drug plan, an organization funded by Democratic and labor groups, has a USA Today op-ed in which he calls the program "costly, confusing and corrupt," while the paper editorializes that the program is showing some results and calls on Congress to refuse to extend the May 15 registration deadline, as some Democrats want.  "The deadline is forcing seniors - and their adult children - to act.  Note that one in eight taxpayers file in the week before April 15."   

The AP reports that per one Bush Medicare official, Bush does not have the authority to extend the deadline, at least not for everyone who is eligible. 

Potential presidential candidate and former Speaker Newt Gingrich thinks the GOP needs a new message.  "'I think [the Republicans are] in very serious danger of having a very bad election this fall,' Gingrich said on Fox.  'When you get poll after poll telling you basically the same thing, you have to respect the right of the American people to say they want change,' he said."

Ethics
The Washington Post's Birnbaum writes up speculation about how successful soon-to-be-former Rep. Tom DeLay could be as a lobbyist.  "The reasons have everything to do with his ability to manipulate the system, a specialty much-prized among lobbyists."  That said, "[i]t isn't known whether DeLay aspires to be a lobbyist...  Nor is it certain that he will beat his indictment in Texas on campaign financing charges or avoid prosecution at the federal level." 

The midterms
The Seattle Times previews Cheney's fundraising events in Washington state and looks at whether his appearances could help or hurt the candidates. 

As party strategists on both sides start focusing on turnout, the Washington Post says anger at Bush "could give Democrats a turnout advantage over Republicans for the first time in recent years...  The premise behind the Democrats' hopes this year is simple, though not easy to quantify: People impassioned by anger or other sentiments are more likely to vote -- even in bad weather and in relatively low-profile races -- than are those who are demoralized or less emotional." 

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