“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 17, 2005 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
The MLK holiday and pre-inauguration security mean Washington is shut down anyway, so residents are spared the embarrassment of displaying their skittishness about dealing with a quarter-inch of snow.  But anticipation of the President's inaugural address and the Iraqi elections continues to build.  While the White House touts President Bush's optimistic "liberty speech," as Dan Bartlett put it yesterday, more and more details come out about how unsafe the balloting in Iraq is expected to be. 

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Somewhat surreally, elections that are considered not safe enough for the names of many candidates or the locations of many polling places to be announced in advance, or secure enough for international monitors to witness, are going to be touted as legitimate by the Bush Administration.  Even Democrats who charged that long lines and too few voting machines in Ohio cast doubts on Bush's win have kept quiet about the far steeper obstacles Iraqis face in conducting a secure and valid vote.

And although what's most important is that Iraqis themselves buy the results, not the rest of the world, there may be increasing uncertainty about that, as well.

Iraqi immigrants living in the United States can register to vote in one of the five designated cities, including DC, starting today.  (We assume the federal holiday won't impede voter registration...)

Today, the President marks the holiday with a 4:00 pm speech at Georgetown University’s “Let Freedom Ring” celebration at the Kennedy Center.  Beyond that, Bush's week is comprised of inauguration-related events -- he's not scheduled to personally flack his second-term agenda anymore until his big speech on Thursday.  Not on his public schedule: interviews to the network White House correspondents today, and remarks to the RNC winter meeting tomorrow.  All RNC events tomorrow are closed-press.

Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, and she could be confirmed by the Senate shortly afterward, allowing Bush to take the oath of office with a secretary of state and a certain-to-be-confirmed director of homeland security. 

And John Kerry returns to the Senate this week after his tour of the Mideast plus France.  An MLK Day statement from Kerry focuses on health care and election reform.

Inauguration build-up
A new AP poll shows that most Americans are optimistic about Bush's second term but remain concerned about the war in Iraq and the economy.

The President's latest big pre-inauguration print interview went to the Washington Post, which led yesterday with his saying "the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath."  Bush also "declined to endorse... Powell's recent statement that the number of Americans serving in Iraq could be reduced by year's end."

On the domestic front, Bush also "said he will not press senators to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the top priority for many social conservative groups.  And he said he has no plans to cut benefits for the approximately 40 percent of Social Security recipients who collect monthly disability and survivor payments as he prepares his plan for partial privatization."

The Washington Times wraps up Dan Bartlett's Sunday-show comments previewing the President's inaugural speech.

The New York Times profiles Michael Gerson, who's writing Bush’s inaugural address.  “Mr. Gerson would not preview the substance of the speech, which is certain to include the kind of religious language that Mr. Gerson, an evangelical Christian, is known for.  But he did say the president would set out the big themes of his foreign and domestic policies in Thursday's Inaugural Address and follow up with details in his State of Union address early next month.”

“Although Mr. Bush is expected to put forth an ambitious social agenda focused on his ‘ownership society,'... the campaign against terrorism will be central in his remarks.”

Laura Bush will expand her own second-term agenda by "working with substance-abusing juvenile delinquents," and possibly make her own trip to Afghanistan, says the AP

Two looks at the Bush family today: The Washington Post says the Bush family's position "in the top tier of political families in U.S. history" is now firmly fixed.  "By any objective measure, political scholars say, Bush is a name that belongs next to Adams, Kennedy and Roosevelt as a force whose influence spans decades."

And the Boston Globe observes, "Political scientists once attacked the Bushes as lacking a distinct political viewpoint analogous to Ronald Reagan's conservatism or Lyndon Johnson's liberalism, but the rise of the current President Bush and Governor Bush has revealed one common thread, a tendency for change in ways that broaden their identity and their political appeal."

Although it's not listed on his public schedule, President Bush is expected to address RNC members tomorrow as they kick off their two-day winter meeting, and the Washington Times reports some "angst" among party officials about the 2006 midterm elections: "party officials say they are confident looking toward the 2006 midterm elections - provided federal spending is not out of control."  The story goes on to say, "To successfully nationalize the 2006 midterms, Mr. Bush may have to bring the public along on a number of issues."

(The story also suggests the RNC will tackle "reform of the presidential-primary system, which is rapidly turning into a national primary day...")

The Bush agenda: Social Security
The Sunday New York Times laid out the Administration's plan to have the Social Security Agency promote Bush's proposed reforms to the system over objections from some agency employees, who "question the accuracy of recent statements by the agency, and... say that money from the Social Security trust fund should not be used for such advocacy."

"Mr. Bush and other officials have said that Social Security is headed for bankruptcy, and that workers should be allowed to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts, as a way to build wealth for themselves and their heirs.  Such comments have prompted inquiries from the public to Social Security offices.  Agency managers said they expected a torrent of calls after Mr. Bush's Inaugural Address on Thursday and his State of the Union speech two weeks later."

That said, Dan Bartlett yesterday "said career employees at the Social Security Administration won't be asked to promote President Bush's" proposed private accounts. – USA Today

The Washington Post covers Bill Frist saying yesterday that he "would consider a plan being floated by the White House that would reduce scheduled benefits".

And the Washington Times says, in the face of Democratic countercharges that the system should be OK for another 40 years, that "some analysts and observers say the system will face a real problem in barely more than a decade." 

January 30
"U.S. troops staged raids Sunday in the insurgent stronghold of Mosul, where mass resignations by frightened poll workers and police threaten the viability of elections scheduled in two weeks."  - USA Today

"[B]ecause of security fears, Iraqis will not know the names of most candidates or where to go to vote until days, possibly even hours, before the election.  More than 200 candidate slates are campaigning without naming most members, and the locations of polling stations will be handwritten onto preprinted election posters just before the vote," said the Sunday Boston Globe

"Voters from such restive cities as Fallujah and Mosul, where voter registration was canceled last month because of safety concerns, will be allowed to register the day of the election and cast ballots at any polling station in their province."

"To counter charges by Iraqis opposed to the US presencethat the 150,000 US troops in the country will taint the election, Iraqi and US officials insist that the 130,000 Iraqi security forces will take the lead in protecting polling stations.  But to reassure voters, they also emphasize that US troops will be close by to back up Iraqi forces, who have often fled in the face of insurgent attacks."

"The 7,000 to 9,000 polling stations originally planned nationwidehave been cut back to about 5,500 to make them easier to secure...  That means Iraqis will have to travel farther to vote in an election whose legitimacy depends in part on significant turnout."

"Election organizers are still wrestling with questions of how to publicly list names of all candidates, and with difficult details of how the votes will be counted and reported, according to telephone interviews with specialists last week.  They said they face the uncomfortable prospect that it is likely to be two weeks before results are known, and the complicating possibility that the declared winners will be challenged afterward under the election rules."  - Washington Post

More on Iraq
The Washington Times reports that US military officers in Iraq "are telling colleagues back in the United States that they disagree with the official Pentagon position and think they need more troops on the ground."  The e-mails "are not couched as gripes.  Rather, the shortfall is explained in terms of, 'If we had more soldiers, we could be in two places at once,' said a retired four-star Army general."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein writes, "The strains on the volunteer military from the war in Iraq are now unsettling as many Republicans as Democrats - and exposing an enduring contradiction in President Bush's agenda."

The Los Angeles Times notes that "U.S. and Iraqi officials have begun to focus on the daunting problems they will face the morning after election day - ones every bit as formidable as those they have faced since the invasion".

Condi and Chertoff
In advance of her confirmation hearing tomorrow, the Sunday Los Angeles Times combed Rice's Stanford years for clues as to how she might approach her new gig.

The Washington Post considers her transition from her more private White House role to the front-and-center State Department job.

And the New York Times says, “[H]er associates and even some of her rivals say she shows every sign of setting a course aimed at putting diplomacy at the top of the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda after a period dominated by military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Bob Novak, meanwhile, says Chertoff will face many questions at his confirmation hearings about his strong belief in executive privilege, which he advocated while at the Justice Department. 

January 20
The Miami Herald notes that Jeb Bush, "who skipped last summer's Republican National Convention to tend to hurricane duties at home, will lead the Florida contingent at the inauguration..."

USA Today previews the inauguration as "the kickoff for a new lobbying season, a chance for the capital's permanent influence class to cement its status with money and entertainment:".

The New York Times also says the hottest parties aren’t the inaugural balls -- they're the private dinners and parties where lobbyists can schmooze and get work done:.

And the Times says many Democrats, including some former Kerry staffers, are leaving DC this week to duck all the festivities.

USA Today updates the protest schedule and lists websites allowing people to register their protests from home.

The Boston Herald profiles Hargrove Inc. which has designed this year's parade floats, just like in years past.  "The company has provided floats for every inauguration dating back to Harry Truman's in 1949 and also makes the decorations and sets for the inaugural balls."

The values debate
The Wall Street Journal covers at length efforts to win "the hearts and minds of youngsters, many of whom will be able to vote in 2008.  Without funding from political parties, a host of groups are pursuing social agendas involving kids -- addressing some of the most polarizing issues in the political debate."  The wide range of groups and activities includes an effort tied to Jerry Falwell, the ACLU, and the two national party committees.

The New York Times says that “reeling from the Republicans' success at courting churchgoers,” Democrats have begun turning to Jim Wallis, one of a few left-leaning evangelical thinkers.  “At the start of the Congressional session, Senate Democrats invited Mr. Wallis to address their members at a private session to discuss issues. A group of about 15 House Democrats invited him to a breakfast discussion about dispelling their party's secular image.  And NBC News has enlisted him to appear as a guest during its inauguration coverage opposite Dr. James C. Dobson, one of the most prominent evangelical conservatives.”

A number of gay rights groups have formed a coalition to push an agenda that includes "equal employment opportunities; adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes law; fighting for protections for children of LGBT couples; overturning military restrictions on gay soldiers; opposing anti-gay state and federal legislation; and fighting for the freedom to marry."  - Washington Post

2006
Gov. George Pataki (R) still hasn’t decided whether he will run for re-election, the New York Post reports.  The New York Daily News, though, quotes Pataki saying he won’t rule running against Hillary Clinton in 2006.  “‘You're not ruling out a race against Hillary Clinton?’ WNBC's Gabe Pressman asked Pataki.”  “‘I'm not ruling in or out anything,’ the three-term Republican said.”

And the Boston Globe says Deval Patrick, a Democrat and "the nation's former top civil-rights enforcer and an experienced legal executive at two multinational corporations, is laying the groundwork for a possible campaign for governor, a move that would make him the first major African-American candidate for governor in the state's history."

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