“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.

Thursday, February 3, 2004 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
A few questions coming out of President Bush's State of the Union:

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Will he get a bump, or not?  Little polling has been done amidst this two-week stretch of major events.  By next week, we'll see a round of national surveys by media organizations which will be compared to surveys done before the inauguration.  The only numbers we see out there this morning, from Gallup, suggest some good news for Bush but come with caveats (below).

More specifically, will Bush have bolstered support for his Social Security and/or Iraq policies?  Or will he have gotten a boost in his personal ratings which he'll then try to leverage on the Hill?

Even after all the rhetoric last night: How will he cover the costs of fixing Social Security? 

And, exactly how much of the chamber has to be clapping for it to count as applause?  Because the tallies we've seen this morning range from 63 to 80. 

President Bush in his State of the Union last night seemed confident and strong as he laid out an unusually bold agenda for a second-term president.  Iraq provided the emotion; Social Security provides the debate, which continues into today as Bush sets out on a five-state tour and Senate Democrats gather at the FDR memorial at 11:00 am to charge that Bush's plan will increase the national debt to $25,000 per capita.  (We'll see if we hear from AARP, now on day three of its DC conference, and no longer quietly waiting to hear what the President has to say.)

Saying he would look for "the most effective combination of reforms," Bush said for the first time last night that he's open to considering reducing benefits, raising the retirement age, and limiting benefits for the wealthy.  He sought to take seniors off the table by assuring them that for Americans aged 55 and older, the system will not change.  He repeated his opposition to raising payroll taxes.  He also said the system would be bankrupt by 2042, an assertion which Democrats audibly booed, since in 2042 the system would be paying out about 75% of current benefits.

Beyond Social Security, the laundry list in the 53-minute speech consisted of:

-- a budget "that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation, makes tax relief permanent,... stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009," and "reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs" not tied to national or homeland security;

-- tort reform in the name of protecting small business owners;

-- expansion of No Child Left Behind to the high school level;

-- health care reform;

-- a reiteration of his energy policies;

-- tax reform;

-- $350 million for Palestinian security to help bring about Mideast peace;

-- reiterated support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage;

-- opposition to federal funding of new embryonic stem cell lines;

-- training for defense lawyers in death-penalty cases (remember what an issue this was in Texas when Bush ran for president?);

-- a Laura Bush-led effort to help at-risk youth and curb gangs; and,

-- "an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists." 

Not really mentioned in the speech:

-- a way to solve the looming Social Security shortfall;

-- new foreign policy beyond financial support for Palestinian security;

-- September 11 -- at least until 33 minutes in, and then not in detail, says Bob Novak;

-- Osama bin Laden, as pointed out by John Kerry; and,

-- an exit strategy for Iraq, Democrats argue

Having addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, the President sets off on his tour of five red states represented by Democratic Senators.  Bush's next event is at 12:30 pm -- a conversation on Social Security at North Dakota State in Fargo.  At 5:00 pm, he does a town hall on the issue in Great Falls.  He then travels to Omaha for the night.

Also today, Bush's AG nominee, Alberto Gonzales, is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate, though with a greater number of Democrats opposing him than opposed Condi Rice.  The Senate meets at 9:00 am; the House is not in session.

And, we don't usually get into who ate what where, but the most productive discussion of the entire DNC chair race probably took place last night at Cafe Milano, where outgoing chairman McAuliffe was scheduled to dine with likely incoming chairman Dean.  According to Dean's office, he has no media appearances or events until the meeting late next week. 

We're amused by suggestions from prominent Democrats in DC that Dean should take his lead from others, given that the DNC chair is generally viewed as a face of the party, especially when they don't hold the White House, and that Dean is better known around the country than some of the lawmakers doing the suggesting.  Increasingly, it seems, even when the DNC selects its new chair in a week, some Democrats will still be fighting over who their leader actually is -- at a time when Bush is pushing one of the most ambitious domestic agendas in decades.  

Bush today
The first stop on Bush's Social Security tour is in Fargo, where The Forum reports that Democratic Sen. Kent "Conrad and [GOP Gov. John] Hoeven are accompanying Bush on Air Force One from Washington to Fargo...  While en route, it's likely Bush might try to persuade Hoeven to run for the Senate -- Conrad is up for re-election next year -- given his pattern of encouraging popular Republicans to try to unseat Democratic incumbents..."

Bush's second stop is in Great Falls, MT, where the Great Falls Tribune says Bush will meet with "a pre-selected group of northcentral Montanans who will be seated on stage with him" in a town-hall format.  About half of the 4,500 available tickets went to "Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana Air National Guard, Great Falls Public Schools, VIPs and volunteers and their families."

From the looks of a Great Falls Tribune poll, Bush will have his work cut out for him there.  The poll shows that "Montanans oppose switching to personal Social Security investment accounts by a nearly 2-to-1 margin...  Nearly 59 percent of the 405 adults surveyed oppose the idea, while nearly 30 percent support it...  The Tribune poll also showed only 11 percent of those surveyed believe the Social Security system is in a crisis, as the president's supporters have asserted."

Tom Shales: "Bush pulled out all the stops in exploiting the success of the recent election in U.S.-occupied Iraq..."  That said, Shales decides, "There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, but Bush did not appear to cross it, at least in terms of style."

Alessandra Stanley: "His was the confident grin of a high school student who was expected by many to flunk the course, and instead got an A minus on his last paper.”

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein heard "more flexibility" from Bush "than he has typically displayed".

The Boston Globe's Canellos says Bush detailed his domestic agenda with "uncharacteristic gestures of diplomacy."

Noting Bush's assertion last night that "a taxpayer dollar must be spent wisely, or not at all," the Los Angeles Times points out that "during his first four years in the White House, Bush presided over the greatest federal spending increase since the Reagan administration."  Still, last night, the "only programs Bush singled out were those he said his budget would treat generously."

"Bush proposed an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda - so wide-ranging that many of his major priorities, such as changes in federal tax law, the civil lawsuit system and immigration policy, rated only two sentences.  Dozens of lesser goals were barely mentioned," says the Los Angeles Times

"In the first State of the Union speech of his second term and in contrast to those of his first term, Mr. Bush concentrated on domestic matters, including moral values, one of the key issues in his presidential win," says the Washington Times.

The Washington Post points out that on "Social Security, same-sex marriage, energy, taxes and lawsuit restrictions," Republican moderates were in a bind last night over whether to cheer along with their more conservative colleagues, or join in the "stony silence" and occasional heckling by Democrats.

The headline from the New York Post reads almost like the press release we got from the RNC: “Democracy’s Triumph Boosts Positive Prez Over Dismal Dems.”

The SOTU: Democrats' response
The Washington Post: "In their response, Democratic leaders drew a careful line, promising not to let partisanship get in the way of progress while vowing to stand up to Bush on matters of principle."

On Social Security, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, whose home state Bush is visiting this week, "said the speech did little to advance the debate, even though Bush said he would consider almost any idea other than raising payroll taxes." – Washington Post

"Democrats said last night they will try to work with President Bush where they can find common ground, but said the vision he laid out in his State of the Union address for Social Security will not be one of those areas."  -- Washington Times

The Chicago Tribune: “In the first two weeks of the president's second term, Democrats have largely thrown away talk of cooperation.  Instead, they are fighting Bush at every turn..."

The SOTU: Social Security
USA Today says Bush, who has "been talking about restructuring Social Security for 27 years," aims to reform the program "to secure his place in history and guarantee the long-term dominance of the Republican Party."

"Bush won over some Americans with his speech.  A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found that 74% of those who watched - most of them Republicans - thought he made a convincing case that action on Social Security is necessary in the next couple years.  Presidential speeches always draw more viewers from the president's party.  Before the speech, 51% of those polled said his Social Security policies would move the country in the right direction.  After the speech, 66% felt that way."

"Democrats who oppose Bush's plan have settled on a line of attack that's meant to remind Americans that he has been wrong before when he warned of imminent catastrophe: He said war with Iraq was necessary because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but none were found."

"The creation of private accounts would not solve Social Security's financial problems but would accomplish two goals that mesh with Bush's conservative views.  They would reduce the role of the government in the retirement of workers who chose them and make higher payroll taxes less likely.  Private accounts would also" foster Bush's goal of an ownership society.  And, "Republicans hope that eventually, low-income people and minorities will accumulate money in private accounts that can be passed on to their heirs, and more of them will become advocates of Republican philosophy."

The New York Daily News analysis traces Bush's private accounts back to his 2000 presidential campaign: "then-Texas Gov. Bush overruled his horrified political handlers and insisted on pressing for Social Security privatization...  To this day, Bush adamantly believes the issue was a political plus for him in Florida - a contention considered pollyannaish by many of his closest aides.  Some, in fact, say if he had kept quiet about tinkering with the most sacred of all domestic political cows, Bush would have won the Sunshine State easily..."

The New York Times analysis: “By now, no one should be surprised at Mr. Bush's penchant for thinking big, or speaking grandly…  So when Mr. Bush vowed on Wednesday night to ‘strengthen and save Social Security,’ that was a warning to his opponents about his resolve, and a cautionary reminder of his own vulnerability to forces beyond his control."  Two obstacles to Bush’s goal, per the story: no immediate crisis and no sweeping mandate. 

The Washington Post says Bush "sought to characterize" his plan "as less risky, less radical and more fiscally responsible than his critics have charged."  But of the potential options he listed for fixing the system, "the president declined to take ownership of any of these politically risky changes, offering them instead as the ideas offered in the past by other politicians, all Democrats as it turned out...  The coming debate will test the president's communication, legislative and negotiating skills as no other domestic proposal he has championed.  Some Republicans fear that Bush has already fallen on the defensive in the battle."

USA Today's analysis notes that Bush refrained from endorsing one "solution to the system's future fiscal shortfall."  But the story adds, "By treading lightly on the painful side of a Social Security solution, Bush may be able to minimize public opposition.  If he does offer tough solutions, it could doom his plan, as Clinton's proposed health care overhaul fell victim to its own details a decade ago."

The Wall Street Journal says "the most fundamental" question about reforming Social Security still "remains: How to shore up the popular program that he says is 'headed for bankruptcy'...  Mr. Bush left those unpopular details out of his State of the Union speech last night, partly at the urging of House and Senate Republican leaders.  Yet he raised some of them all the same -- and suggested Democratic roots for each."

"The White House, in a news release, explained that by 'bankrupt,' Bush meant that by 2042, the system would have exhausted its reserves and would be unable to pay all of its obligations.  Actuaries have estimated that at that point, annual payroll taxes would still support about 73% of promised benefits."  - Los Angeles Times

"Bush sketched out in more detail than before the top domestic goal of his second term, but he stopped short of providing a complete blueprint, leaving himself negotiating room with skeptical lawmakers," says another Washington Post piece, which also points out that"Bush did not refer to the cost in his address and did not try to reconcile it with his call for greater fiscal discipline elsewhere in his next budget, which will virtually freeze discretionary spending unrelated to the military or homeland security."

The plan
The Los Angeles Times reports, as do many others, that "senior White House officials acknowledged that private accounts would do nothing to keep the giant retirement system solvent."  The story adds, "Indeed, some independent analysts said the private accounts would make the problems much worse by siphoning tax revenue away from the system and adding hundreds of billions of dollars in transition costs."

"Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said that the administration's admission that there was no connection between private accounts and Social Security's long-term solvency could complicate Bush's planned two-day, five-state campaign swing later this week to tout his proposals."

The Washington Post points out that under Bush's plan, "workers who opt to divert some of their payroll taxes into individual accounts would ultimately get to keep only the investment returns that exceed the rate of return that the money would have accrued in the traditional system.  The mechanism... would hold down the cost of Bush's plan to introduce personal accounts to the Social Security system.  But it could come as a surprise to lawmakers and voters who have thought of these accounts as akin to an individual retirement account or a 401(k)..."

And the Post notes that "the system would ultimately look something like a proposal made by President Bill Clinton, in which the government would have invested Social Security taxes in the stock market.  That idea was criticized by conservatives because the federal government could end up choosing winners and losers in the financial markets.  But under the Bush system, the government is still choosing the stocks and bonds to be bought with Social Security money..."

The SOTU: misc
The Washington Times gets into the problems Bush faces among GOP conservatives, particularly in the House, in passing his guest-worker program:.

The Dallas Morning News says Bush’s brief mention of immigration reform didn’t impress Mexican observers:.

The Los Angeles Times focuses on Laura Bush's new program to help troubled youth and curb gangs.

Gonzales and Chertoff
The AP: "Confirming... Gonzales... 'will resonate throughout the Hispanic community' despite Democratic concerns linking him with Bush administration policies on treatment of foreign detainees, Republicans said Wednesday.  As many as 30 Democrats are expected to vote against the White House counsel and former Texas Supreme Court judge."

After Chertoff told a Senate panel that he did not give intelligence officials any specific guidance on the interrogation of alleged terrorists in 2002, the Washington Post says Chertoff's "approval is all but assured when the committee votes, probably Monday, and leaders of both parties say the full Senate is almost certain to confirm him soon after that."

More whither the Democrats
No, that wasn't an old e-mail sent out again by mistake: Ted Kennedy, one of the few remaining prominent Democrats who hasn't warned Howard Dean to keep quiet, is giving another speech on Iraq this Friday, this time at UMass-Boston at 10:00 am.  Kennedy will "reflect on the implications of last weekend’s elections on the prospects of success in Iraq and react to the President’s State of the Union."

Pro-choice groups are upset with the Democratic Senate campaign committee for appearing to back pro-life candidates for the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island Senate races in 2006, Roll Call reports. 

Roll Call also says "House Democrats will spend their annual retreat this weekend trying to develop a coherent strategy on the issues of security and values that will allow them to go toe-to-toe with the GOP heading into 2006...  The conference highlights include panel discussions on national security, values and faith, winning in conservative 'red' states and combating GOP plans to reform Social Security."

The Washington Post notes "the preening by the Republican Party's potential 2008 presidential candidates.  A few of the would-be presidents -- McCain, Chuck Hagel (Neb.), George Allen (Va.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) -- sat in the back benches.  Not so Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who because of their leadership positions were allowed to make two grand entrances..."

Roll Call looks at recent moves by Sen. Evan Bayh (D) which could signal a coming presidential run:.  (We also noticed that Bayh was the first of the potential pack to e-mail around a statement about the SOTU last night.)

Media notes
Howard Kurtz, reporting on Bob Schieffer's new job, notes that at the network anchors' lunch with President Bush yesterday, "Rather chatted cordially with the president but did not speak during a question-and-answer session:".

"Out with the old - and in with the old," says the Washington Times of the CBS news.


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