First Thoughts: Obama Looks to Pope to Bolster Domestic Agenda

President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis, Thursday, March 27, 2014, at the Vatican. Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama's administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Obama’s Thursday morning meeting with Pope Francis has easily been the most domestic part of his overseas trip -- by far. Just check out what the president told an Italian newspaper (translated into English) before today’s meeting: “Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks it carries enormous weight. That’s why I quoted him in my speech on income inequality,” Obama said. “In the United States over the last few decades we’ve seen a growing gap between the income of those at the very top and the income of the typical family. It’s also become harder for Americans to work their way up and provide a better life for their families. But this isn’t just a problem for the United States, it’s a problem for countries around the world. And it isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a moral issue.” So this is the day of the trip that could penetrate the most domestically for the White House. And, of course, the pope has much better polling numbers among Americans (55% fav/7% unfav) than President Obama does (41%/44%), according to this month’s NBC/WSJ poll. What's more, 60% of Catholic respondents in the poll said they agreed with the statement that Pope Francis has renewed and strengthened their faith and commitment to the Catholic Church.


Where Obama and Pope Francis agree -- and where they disagree

While President Obama and Pope Francis appear to be on the same page when it comes to income inequality, they do disagree on some other important social issues -- including abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. “A reminder of just how divided they are came just two days before the president meets the pope, when the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on the validity of religious exemptions of the contraception mandate of Obamacare,” Yahoo noted. “Those exemptions, put forth by several privately owned businesses that don’t want to pay for their employees’ birth control on religious grounds, are supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a powerful Vatican lobby with the pope’s ear.” Indeed, this was from the release the Vatican sent yesterday regarding the president’s visit with the pope: “[Obama’s] upcoming audience with Pope Francis will take place in the context of a complex phase of the administration's relations with the Church of the United States, marked, in particular, by controversy on the implementation of health care reform (the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,’ commonly known as ‘Obamacare’) having to do with rules on mandatory health care coverage of sterilization, contraception, and abortion; and on other issues at the centre of public debate in the United States, such as the legalization of homosexual marriages.” That’s not something you see every day from an entity that’s hosting a politician’s visit.

On Obama’s big speech yesterday

Despite all of the focus on today’s Obama-Pope Francis meeting, don’t lose sight of Obama’s speech yesterday on Europe and the crisis in Ukraine. It was a big speech by the president. “Our economy is not deeply integrated with Ukraine’s. Our people and our homeland face no direct threat from the invasion of Crimea. Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation,” he said. “But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.” The only question we have is whether the president continues to have the political juice to have these words resonate.

On the thousands of dollars Reid’s campaign gave to his granddaughter

From overseas back to the United States… This story involving Harry Reid should be getting more attention than it currently is. The Las Vegas Sun: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has reimbursed his campaign nearly $17,000 paid to his granddaughter for ‘holiday gifts’ in late 2013, after the Federal Election Commission insisted that his campaign clarify why the money was spent. The FEC sent the treasurer for Friends of Harry Reid a letter insisting that he ‘must include a brief statement or description … to clarify the following description: ‘holiday gifts.’ Reid’s campaign operation listed that description on its year-end report for two separate disbursements to Ryan Elisabeth of Berkley, Calif., on Oct. 23 — one for $5,416.93, the other for $11,370.00. ‘Ryan Elisabeth’ is actually Ryan Elisabeth Reid, the majority leader’s granddaughter, a spokeswoman for Reid confirmed Tuesday.” And now Nevada reporter Jon Ralston raises the payment figure from $17,000 to $31,000.

Health-care fatigue?

Right now, Republicans’ strategy for the midterm elections is simple: Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare. And the strategy makes sense given the law’s overall unpopularity and the largely red-state playing field in the midterms. But is there a point at which the Obamacare-all-the-time playbook yields diminishing returns? According to a health-care tracking poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of all respondents -- including 51% of independents and even 47% of Republicans -- said they are tired about hearing the debate over the health-care law and think the country should focus on other issues. It will be interesting to track similar polling over the next few months. Still, the law remains pretty unpopular; the same poll shows 46% holding an unfavorable view of it, versus 38% with a favorable view (but that’s an improvement from January, when it was 50% unfavorable, 34% favorable).

Are you innocent if your own legal team says so?

The question is if there will be more focus on the report a big-time law firm will be releasing today that reportedly exonerates New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s involvement in the George Washington Bridge scandal -- or if there’s more focus on Christie’s ties to the very same law firm. The Bergen Record: “The governor hired a team of lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher – led by Randy Mastro who served in former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration – to investigate after firing a top aide in January… Since the New York Times announced Monday that the report would clear Christie, Democrats have questioned how independent Mastro’s investigation was. Mastro served as a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York under Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for that district. When Giuliani was elected mayor, Mastro served in his administration as chief of staff and a deputy mayor. Giuliani has been an ardent Christie supporter and sat alongside the governor at the Super Bowl.” More from the paper: “The New York Times reported that Masto’s firm – which was retained at a $650 hourly rate – is billing the state $1 million for its work.” We know what Christie is up to here: He’s trying to make this report mark the beginning of a political rehabilitation tour. But will this report do the trick?

An embarrassing day for local Democrats

Finally, Wednesday turned out to be an embarrassing day for local Democratic politicians. The mayor of Charlotte and a California state senator were arrested, and a New York state assemblyman had his office raided. Just a question for the feds: If you began the undercover investigation of the Charlotte mayor, Patrick Cannon, back in 2010, why did you wait until AFTER he became mayor last year? Why not step in earlier?

Click here to sign up for First Read emails. Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone. Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics