First Thoughts: A race to the bottom

A race to the bottom: Obama and Congress continue to reach new lows in polls… WaPo report: Health-care website “unlikely” to fully work by end of the month… Senate Republicans block another Obama judicial nominee… Bill Clinton hasn’t quite mastered the new media environment… Gingrey’s pledge: I’ll repeal Obamacare or go home… McConnell: I’m happy to answer your questions -- as long as they’re the questions I want to address… Rand Paul talks foreign policy… And RNC Chair Priebus heads to the Big Easy.

*** A race to the bottom: How low can President Obama and Congress go? We’re watching both continue to sink in polls. A Quinnipiac survey released yesterday found that Obama’s approval rating had dropped to 39%, which is his lowest point in that poll (we’re in Bush territory, folks). More ominously, just 44% said the president was honest and trustworthy -- yet another all-time low -- compared with 52% who disagreed. Meanwhile, Gallup showed that Congress’ job-approval rating had declined to a mere 9%, which is the lowest mark in the poll’s 39-year history of asking that question. This race to the bottom isn’t new, of course. Our NBC/WSJ poll released late last month -- after the government shutdown, after the standoff over the debt limit, and after a month’s worth of reported problems with the federal health-care website -- also found Obama (42% approval) and the Republican Party (22%-53% fav/unfav) reaching all-time lows. But what these new polls show is that the slides don’t appear to be stopping.

*** So whose slide is worse? On the one hand, presidential approval does appear to impact midterm results (the lower the approval, the worse the president’s party typically fares) in a bigger way than congressional job approval does. On the other hand, Obama isn’t ever running for office again, and the Republican Party’s current brand issues aren’t doing its future standard bearers any favors. What’s more, we’ve never entered territory like this (9%!!!). This is worse than 1992, when the public had collective disapproval for Washington Democrats (in Congress) and Washington Republicans (in the White House). This is truly unchartered territory. In 1992, the bipartisan anger led to a lot of incumbents retiring (we’ve seen a slight uptick) and other incumbents dealing with primary challenges, not just general election problems (and we have that). Of course, for the president, he’s getting to a point where it is hard to see how he pulls out of this nosedive anytime soon. He may wish he could talk about anything other than health care, but until the website works and enrollment becomes more reliable, he’s stuck. He’ll look silly trying to talk about anything else -- be it the economy or immigration. His credibility on other issues are being called into question now, so he might as well treat health care like the ONLY issue he has on his plate.

*** Report: Website “unlikely” to fully work by end of month: Yet it’s hard to see how Obama’s numbers improve -- especially regarding honesty and trustworthiness -- if this Washington Post story proves to be correct. “Software problems with the federal online health insurance marketplace, especially in handling high volumes, are proving so stubborn that the system is unlikely to work fully by the end of the month as the White House has promised, according to an official with knowledge of the project,” the Post writes. Government workers and technical contractors racing to repair the Web site have concluded, the official said, that the only way for large numbers of Americans to enroll in the health-care plans soon is by using other means so that the online system isn’t overburdened.” Ouch. The White House is pushing back against the report, with one spokesman telling First Read: “We expect the website to function effectively for the vast majority of users by the end of the month… One anonymous person citing one metric at a moment in time two and a half weeks out from our due date is hardly determinative.” Regardless who is correct, don’t be surprised if this becomes a major part of today’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on health care’s implementation, which begins at 9:30 am ET.

*** Senate Republicans block another judicial nominee: It’s also hard to see how Congress’ numbers improve as this story gets more and more attention. “Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked the nomination of Cornelia Pillard to the powerful D.C. Circuit, the third nominee to that court to fail to advance in the last two weeks,” NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports. “The vote was 56-41. Two Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the nomination. The nomination needed 60 votes to advance.” While fights over the DC circuit are hardly new, what is new is that Republicans aren’t pretending there are other reasons for their obstruction on them other than politics. These judicial nominees aren’t being blocked because of their qualifications or ideology -- they’re being blocked because Republicans don’t want Obama making ANY additional appointments to the D.C. Circuit, no matter the qualifications or ideology. And this obstruction (denying these nominees up-or-down votes) is likely to trigger another fight over filibuster rules. “There reaches a point where we can’t allow this type of injustice to occur,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said, per the New York Times. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) fired back that changing the filibuster rules will come back to haunt Democrats when Republicans re-take control of the chamber. But here’s something for Senate Republicans to chew on: Say they win back the Senate in 2014 by running the table, do they expect to hold on to it in 2016, when so many of their Class of 2010 (Mark Kirk, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte) are up for re-election? That said, it appears nearly inevitable that the Senate is headed for another showdown on the filibuster rules -- and the unintended consequences of that will be something the Senate will be dealing with for years.

*** Bill Clinton hasn’t quite mastered the new media environment: Returning to the topic of health care… In his recent interview on the law, former President Bill Clinton didn’t do President Obama any favors. At the same time, though, the coverage was a bit overblown. (After all, the thrust of the interview was Clinton praising the law, with him saying: “We’re better off with this law than without it.” This is why the White House isn’t upset with Clinton; they saw the whole interview.) Still, Clinton’s comments are a reminder that he hasn’t quite mastered dealing with the current media environment, and that fact could be problematic if Hillary does run for president in 2016. Remember, he was a big asset to President Obama in the 2012 election. But also remember that he praised Bain Capital, which created a brief (but ultimately inconsequential) headache for Team Obama.

*** Gingrey’s pledge: I’ll repeal Obamacare or go home: Regarding the 2014 midterms, don’t miss this TV ad that Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) is airing in that crowded Senate GOP primary in Georgia. “I’ll help repeal Obamacare in my first year -- or go home,” Gingrey (wearing his doctor whites) says in the ad. Don’t be surprised if other Republicans running in competitive GOP primaries begin to make a similar pledge, because it certainly stands out. But for all the grief that Obama received for not being able to deliver on a promise when it comes to 5% of the health-insurance marketplace, is Gingrey making a pledge that isn’t realistic? Despite the rollout troubles with Obamacare, uninsured Americans are getting insurance, others are buying it on the exchanges, and folks are receiving other benefits. Come 2017 -- when Obama is no longer in the White House and potentially wielding a veto pen -- will full repeal still be an option? How many truly want to bet their jobs on it? Then again, that’s how one can stand out in a primary, actually betting their job on it.

*** McConnell: I’m happy to answer your questions -- as long as they’re the questions I want to address: In other 2014 news, this quote from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got our attention: "I’m probably not going to be answering questions about anything else, but I’m happy to respond to questions about Obamacare," he said to reporters. "As some of you have complained from time to time that I don’t do a stake out after every event and I’m not going to do a stake out after every event because as you can imagine I prefer the news of that day to be what I’d like for it to be rather than what you all may be interested in pursuing." McConnell and his aides have been making the case that Democratic challenger Alison Grimes has been ducking interviews and questions. But it’s harder for McConnell to make that case if he’s playing the same game.

*** Rand Paul talks foreign policy: Meanwhile, in 2016 news, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) delivered a foreign-policy speech at The Citadel in South Carolina. And it was a reminder that the biggest policy divide inside the GOP is on foreign affairs and national security, even if that might not matter to primary voters (right now at least). In his speech, Paul praised Dwight Eisenhower, the biggest dove Republican president in the last 50 years. “For inspiration and guidance, I often look towards America’s great military leaders. Some of the best observations of war and diplomacy come from the president who was also one of our most decorated generals, Dwight Eisenhower. In David Nichols’ book, Eisenhower 1956, he writes that Ike ‘believed, with good reason, that once the violence begins, everything changes and you can throw your plans in the trash.’ It’s too bad more in Washington don’t heed Ike’s advice today.” Paul is trying to dress up his foreign policy views (which some would argue lean toward isolationism) by leaning on folks who historically are perceived as hawks even if a closer look at their record indicates otherwise.

*** Priebus heads to the Big Easy: Finally, RNC Chair Reince Priebus travels to New Orleans today, where he will talk about education choice. “It’s as simple as this: our children’s interests should come first in education policy,” he said, per a release. “We should always be looking for ways to open the doors of opportunity for all our children and highlighting success stories like those at St Benedict the Moor School. For too long, this administration has fought against our children in the name of special interests and it has to stop.” The RNC says that Priebus’ trip to Louisiana comes after the Justice Department sued to block the state’s voucher program.

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