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First Thoughts: Obama, 50 years later

Obama, 50 years later after MLK’s famous speech… Previewing Obama’s speech -- a focus on opportunity for all… NBC/WSJ poll: Many Americans say King’s dream hasn’t become a reality yet… How clear is Obama’s goal in Syria?... Boehner promises “a whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling… Kaiser poll: Confusion about the health-care law… So enter Bill Clinton, the “secretary of explaining stuff,” who will speak on the law on Sept. 4… And internal poll shows Lamar Alexander sitting pretty so far.

*** Obama, 50 years later: On this 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, our focus today moves from war in the Middle East and the looming budget battle to the topic that has divided this country throughout its history: race. And the highlight of the commemoration is President Obama’s speech at 2:45 pm ET from the Lincoln Memorial, the same place where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech 50 years ago. The issue of race has always been a main part of Obama’s political career, and it has carried some contradictions for him. After all, the nation’s first black president was born to a white woman from Kansas and a father from Kenya. He didn’t grow up in the South or in an urban metropolis -- the venues of the civil-rights movement -- but instead in Hawaii. He won election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 not solely because of minority support but rather by a coalition including African Americans, Latinos, young voters, and white liberals and independents. And despite writing a famous book about race and his identity, he avoided national conversations about race in his first term, although theGrio’s Perry Bacon notes how that’s changed in the second term. Bottom line: Today’s speech isn’t an easy or clear-cut one for Obama, especially with all the expectations about it

*** Previewing Obama’s speech -- a focus on opportunity for all: Over the last few weeks, however, the president has seemed to preview the remarks he’ll give -- and his focus has centered on opportunity for all Americans. “Let's assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically, with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart,” Obama said at a town hall last week when asked a question about education and civil rights. “You'd still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor and whose families have become dysfunctional because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run down and schools that are underfunded… So if, in fact, that’s the case -- and that is what I believe -- then it's in all of our interests to make sure that we are putting in place smart policies to give those communities a lift, and to create ladders so that young people in those communities can succeed.” And in his interview with the New York Times last month, Obama said: “When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality; it was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot... And if there’s one thing that I wanted to try to emphasize today in this speech, it is that America has always worked better when everybody has a chance to succeed.” Obama also said this to radio host Tom Joyner: “All I can do on an occasion like this is just to celebrate the accomplishments of all of those folks whose shoulders we stand on and then remind people that the work is still out there for us to do.”

*** NBC/WSJ poll: Many Americans say King’s dream hasn’t become a reality yet: In his “I have a dream speech,” Martin Luther King Jr. declared his desire for a more colorblind America: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But five decades after the March on Washington, just a bare majority of Americans – and fewer than one-in-five African Americans – believe that dream has been realized. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last month, 54% of respondents agreed with the statement that America is a nation where people are judged by their character, not their skin color. But 45% percent disagreed, including a whopping 79% of African Americans. In the same poll, another bare majority -- 52% -- said race relations in the U.S. are good, which was down from 79% who said this in Jan. 2009, 72% who said it in 2010 and 71% who said it in 2011.

*** Today’s program in Washington: The “Let Freedom Ring Commemoration” of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington begins at 11:00 am ET, and some of the other notable speakers include: Sen. Angus King (I-ME) Myrile Evers Williams, Lynda Robb Johnson, Caroline Kennedy, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), former President Jimmy Carter, former President Bill Clinton, and the King family. By the way, NBC’s Kristen Welker reports that Obama called Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) a "couple of days ago" to get his recollections about the March on Washington, according to a senior administration official. The same official added that the president views today’s speech as a moment to reflect back on what was happening 50 years ago, the progress that has been made since then, and the challenges that lie ahead.

*** How clear is Obama’s goal in Syria? Regarding the likelihood that the Obama administration will use force -- and perhaps soon -- against the Syrian regime for its reported chemical-weapons attack, what we’re watching is to see how clear President Obama makes this goal to the American people. There’s no doubt the White House has been trying to lower expectations by not calling for regime change. But isn’t it the administration’s policy for regime change? After all, Obama has called for Assad to step down.

*** Boehner promises “a whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling: At an Idaho fundraiser earlier this week for Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), House Speaker John Boehner vowed to use raising the debt limit to extract cuts and reforms to entitlement spending. “I’ve made it clear that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit,” he said. “The president doesn’t think this is fair, thinks I’m being difficult to deal with. But I’ll say this: It may be unfair but what I’m trying to do here is to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices. We’re going to have a whale of a fight.” Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told CNBC’s John Harwood that the Obama administration will not negotiate over raising the debt limit. "Congress has already authorized funding, committed us to make expenditures. We're now in a place where the only question is, will we pay the bills that the United States has incurred?"

*** Kaiser poll: Confusion about the health law: To us, perhaps the most striking numbers from the new Kaiser Family Foundation poll on health care are these: 44% of Americans either think the health-care law has been repealed, overturned by the Supreme Court, or are unsure whether it’s the law of the land. What’s more, 51% say they don’t have enough information about the law or how it will impact them. Also in the poll, the law remains unpopular, getting a 37%-42% fav/unfav rating. (It was 35%-43% in June.) But importantly, the vast majority of Americans do not want to defund the law. Just 36% approve of defunding it, 57% do not. But Republicans approve 60%-34% -- hence the ongoing GOP discussion about potentially shutting down the government to defund the law. (The defund numbers, Kaiser says, has been consistent since Jan. 2011.)

*** Bill Clinton to give major address on the health-care law on Sept. 4: With this confusion about the health-care law, First Read can report that former President Bill Clinton will deliver a speech on the health-care law in Little Rock, AR on Sept. 4. Remember, it was almost a year when Obama tapped Clinton to be his “secretary of explaining stuff” at the Democratic convention as it related to the state of the U.S. economy. Now it appears the president is doing the same when it comes to the implementation of the health-care law. Also note the Arkansas venue for the speech: Is this also about trying to help Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), who’s up for re-election next year and is perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Dem incumbent in 2014?

*** Internal poll shows Lamar Alexander sitting pretty: Lastly, one of us got our hands on a new internal GOP poll showing that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) appears to be sitting pretty in the primary challenge he’s now getting. “It doesn't look rocky for Lamar Alexander on Rocky Top just yet. The Tennessee Republican has been named a top target by conservative groups and drew a primary challenger last week, but an internal GOP poll conducted for the senior senator's campaign shows the longtime state politician still enjoys high job approval ratings and wide leads over his potential opponents A year away from next August's Republican primary, a survey from North Star Opinion Research, shows Alexander has a 69% job approval rating among GOP primary voters, with 24% disapproving. The Republican also gets high marks with Republican subgroups: 74% of strong Republicans gave him a positive job approval, along with 70% of evangelical Christians.

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