“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Monday, January 10, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Some of us are focusing on the inauguration 10 days from now, some of us on the Iraqi elections 20 days from now.  For lack of an official White House announcement, or details on how the speech will be billed, fewer may be focusing on the President's State of the Union/address to the nation, seemingly scheduled for February 2.

  1. Other political news of note
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      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
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

But it's really all of a piece.  President Bush is entering a critical three-week period of hard selling -- of his domestic agenda, of his national security policy for the Mideast, and of the nation's image as a compassionate ally of countries in need.

The President's job approval rating is already being affected by the war in Iraq.  Any bounce he gets from his inauguration is likely to dissipate fast in the face of pre-election violence over there, and any violence during the elections will have to be addressed in his speech to the nation.  Colin Powell's comments yesterday that the violence will likely continue after the elections was arguably the Administration's first real effort to manage expectations for what the Iraq vote will accomplish.

Compounding Bush's challenge on the domestic front, the GOP's side is laid open today in the press -- an AP story speculating about Vice President Cheney's "waning" influence, reports of conservative think-tank and activists' criticism of Bush/GOP spending, a Boston Globe look at Republican lawmakers' straying from the tenets of the Contract with America, (potential presidential candidate!) Newt Gingrich opposing Bush's Social Security plan in his new book.

And there's still no director of homeland security.

The President devotes his public events today to the tsunami, receiving a briefing on US aid to the region at 9:45 am, then heading to the Reagan Building to address USAID and NGO officials at 11:10 am; McClellan gaggles at 9:00 am and briefs at 12:45 pm.  Tomorrow, Bush has a Social Security event in DC.  On Wednesday he travels to the Virginia suburbs to talk about expending No Child Left Behind, and on Friday after a down day Thursday, he heads to Jacksonville, FL for an event on higher education and job training.

Meanwhile, Democrats may not have figured out what direction to take following their November losses, but they're getting their groove back in opposing Bush's agenda.  In the DNC chair race, aides to Howard Dean say he will announce his intentions regarding the DNC chair race sometime early this week.

And the Supreme Court is back at work today amidst growing speculation about Rehnquist's health.

Other countries' elections
The White House is cautiously optimistic about Abbas’s victory as Palestinian Authority president, the New York Times says.  But Administration officials note that “progress is contingent on the Palestinians curbing terrorist activity and the Israelis easing their grip in the West Bank and curtailing settlement growth there.”

Monitors of the election, led by Jimmy Carter, will hold a presser in East Jerusalem at 11:00 am ET.  They observed voting problems in that area, "where they said Israeli officials severely limited the number of Palestinians allowed to cast ballots.  The monitors said, however, that the Israeli military largely adhered to commitments to ease travel restrictions at checkpoints throughout the West Bank.  No significant problems were reported in the Gaza Strip..."  -- Washington Post

"The administration viewed the election as a key test of Bush's vision for democracy in the Middle East.  Also, many observers hope the election will create an opportunity to revive peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians." - Washington Post

The Washington Times rounds up Sunday talk-show comments on the escalating violence in Iraq and the possibility of it continuing after the election. – Washington Times

The New York Times ponders one of the White House's biggest foreign policy questions: How and when does the United States pull out of Iraq?  “[A]ll over Washington, there is talk about new ways to define when the mission is accomplished - not to cut and run, but not to linger, either.  Several administration officials acknowledge that Mr. Bush will face crucial decisions soon after Jan. 30, when it should become clearer whether the election has resulted in more stability or more insurgency.”

The Washington Post takes its look at delayed government preparations and possible causes of confusion as an estimated 240,000 Iraqi immigrants in the United States hope to vote on January 30.

The Los Angeles Times reports from Dearborn, MI on Iraqi immigrants "scrambling to get ready for the Jan. 30 vote:" "Muslim and Christian leaders... have been meeting regularly to figure out ways to help their communities stay up-to-date on the election...  Internet chat rooms and e-mail groups dedicated to updates about the voting process abound.  At cafes,... residents vigorously debate the pros and cons of each candidate."

Bush II: battle lines
The AP reports on Cheney's "waning" influence in the White House: "Cheney's role is in flux.  His chief task in Bush's first administration -- mentoring a novice president with little foreign policy or legislative experience -- has been accomplished.  He remains dogged by heart disease and an FBI probe of a subsidiary of Halliburton...  Indeed, some wonder whether Cheney, with no ambition to succeed his boss in the White House, will serve out his second term."

Still: "As Bush turns in his second term to forging his presidency's legacy, he is expected to use Cheney to push his domestic agenda -- overhauling Social Security and the tax code -- in Congress, where Cheney served for 10 years as a Wyoming congressman and where he still enjoys strong influence among House conservatives."

The Washington Times has GOP lawmakers suggesting that "Bush's lackluster job-approval rating will make it harder to push through his second-term tax and Social Security reforms, and could undermine House conservatives' uphill battle against runaway spending".

A Heritage Foundation report being released today "says President Bush and the Republicans have too often pushed big spending programs, contrary to their campaign promises, made again in 2004, to move the government in a more conservative direction," says the Washington Times.

"In a surprisingly critical assessment of Mr. Bush's policies and programs of the past four years, the conservative think tank praised the president for strengthening national security and cutting taxes to promote economic growth.  But the report also took him to task for massive spending increases in Medicare entitlements, education and farm subsidies, and for imposing protectionist steel tariffs that hurt consumers and manufacturers."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein asserts, "Concern for future generations has been scarce in the capital's recent fiscal decisions...  Over the next 75 years, the best estimate is that Bush's tax cuts will cost from $10 trillion to $12 trillion.  The prescription drug bill will cost about $8 trillion.  All this comes while bills mount for the global war against terrorism.  In essence, we've voted ourselves more services and lower taxes and billed both to our children through a higher national debt that is soaring again after shrinking in the late 1990s."

And Bush isn't the only Republican lawmaker seeing this kind of criticism: The Boston Globe points out that the "Contract with America is relevant again -- as a reference point for growing disagreements among Republicans about how far they have strayed from their core principles...  Voices are emerging from within the Republican Party to return the GOP to the simple planks of the contract that helped the party gain power in the House."

And the Washington Post does the "Democrats get their groove back" story: "Democrats in Washington and around the country are organizing for a year of confrontation and resistance, saying they are determined to block Bush's major initiatives and thereby deny him the mandate he has claimed from his reelection victory last November."  The story notes "a hardening of attitudes among Democrats... that Bush's domestic agenda presents opportunities to divide the GOP, break apart Bush's winning coalition and recapture some of the voters who supported Bush last fall."

"Several events have contributed to Democrats' belief that Bush can be challenged at little political damage to themselves.  They include the brouhahas over Kerik, Rummy, and Treasury Secretary Snow.  "Just as significant have been polls showing that Bush gained little ground in public opinion with his victory."

That said, Democrats may not be "well organized yet to challenge Bush effectively...  Already there is grumbling among strategists that the party is falling behind the White House and congressional Republicans in developing a strategy."

The Bush agenda: Social Security
The New York Times follows the Washington Post yesterday, and First Read last week, in questioning Bush's casting of Social Security as a "crisis" situation.  Critics now charge the White House with exaggerating claims that Social Security is in a “crisis” (observers say the system can pay full benefits until at least 2042), that its long-term financial gap is estimated at $10 trillion (analysts note the shortfall is actually $3.7 trillion over 75 years), and that its trust fund is actually empty (observers say that if so, the government would be defaulting on its Treasury bonds, sending the economy into turmoil).

“But Mr. Bush's strategy puts Democrats in a difficult position.  If they argue that Social Security is fundamentally in good health, Republicans could accuse them of irresponsibly glossing over serious long-term problems.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that in remarks to the American Economics Association, N. Gregory Mankiw, "President Bush's top economic adviser,... said the White House isn't seeking to slash retiree benefits, but aims simply to stop the system from showering ever-larger benefits on each new generation of retirees."

Roll Call reports that Max Baucus will be Senate Democrats' lead negotiator on Social Security.  Baucus has already declared his opposition to private accounts.

Newt Gingrich's book, in which he disputes the expected White House effort to cut Social Security benefits, is due out today. – Washington Post

Armstrong Williams
USA Today, following up on its Friday report that Williams was paid $240,000 by DOE to promote No Child Left Behind, says that "People For the American Way... today will launch an online campaign urging Williams to return the money."  The story also notes that Rep. John Boehner, "an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Education Committee... called for an inquiry by the Education Department's inspector general."

But the Wall Street Journal reminds us, "Such opinion management isn't a Bush-administration invention.  In 2000, President Clinton's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, secretly paid television networks to propagandize its antidrug message...  In return for changing scripts, the networks were allowed to sell to higher-paying advertisers advertising time that had been promised to the government."

Democrats churning
USA Today lumps all the Democratic soul-searching and the race for DNC chair together in a look at how Democrats aren't comfortable attacking Republicans on character, unlike Republicans, and points out that "analysts wonder how a party and its top strategists can be caught off-guard by a recurring tactic."

The AP writes that seven candidates for DNC chair -- including Dean, Frost, Roemer, Fowler, and Rosenberg -- spoke to Southern DNC members, and all of them contended the party needs to do a better job in the South.  “‘You want to know my Southern strategy, show up,’ said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor…”

The AP also notes that former Rep. Tim Roemer's entry into the race is "certain to spark a heated debate about abortion,” because he opposes it.

As we mentioned last week, Sen. Ted Kennedy will give a big National Press Club luncheon speech on Wednesday in which he'll "discuss the future of the Democratic Party and outline the fundamental issues on which this country has lost its focus," per the release from his office.  "Instead of allowing Republicans to distort 'values' and divide the nation, Kennedy will call on Democrats to talk about the principles that have guided progressive politics for more than a century..."

The Sunday Washington Post front-paged speculation about red-state Gov. Mark Warner's potentially national future in Democratic politics.

January 20
The Washington Post front-pages some details on the inauguration's high-tech security command center in the Virginia suburbs.

Fundraisers for the inauguration have raised $18 million, nearly half their goal of $40 million, says the AP.  In addition to the inaugural "underwriters," who give at least $250,000 apiece, "sponsors" are contributing $100,000 apiece.

Roll Call reports that per some lobbyists, "senior inaugural fundraisers last week called Republican lobbyists and asked them to encourage potential corporate sponsors to buy ticket packages to inaugural events.  The lobbyists, speaking anonymously, said they think officials were calling because the committee had fallen short in its fundraising efforts...  Inaugural officials assert that no problem exists."

2004
The Washington state legislature opens its new session today, but the Seattle-Post Intelligencer reported over the weekend that its business is overshadowed by the lingering controversy over the state’s gubernatorial contest.  “Gregoire is scheduled to take the oath of office at midday Wednesday during a joint session of the Legislature in the ornate House chamber.  As winner of an unprecedented statewide hand count last month, by a tiny 129-vote margin, Gregoire was designated the governor-elect.”

But: “On Tuesday, legislative Republicans are expected to try, probably unsuccessfully, to deny Gregoire a certificate of election until the questions are sorted out.  Republicans have been running radio ads and online petitions to bolster their demand for a do-over.”

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R) "sent a fundraising letter for his 2006 gubernatorial campaign that was accompanied by a request for illegal contributions," reports the AP.

California
Doris Matsui may run to succeed her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui (D), in the House.

And Roll Call reports that the vast majority of the California congressional delegation opposes Schwarzenegger's proposed redistricting plan, in which a bipartisan panel of judges would redraw the lines before the 2006 elections.

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