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Obama's Second Term Dictated by Crises

Image: Obama says separatists must return bodies, allow investigation

President Barack Obama arrives from the West Wing to deliver a statement on the situation in Ukraine at The White House in Washington, DC, USA, 21 July 2014. US President Barack Obama calls for international investigators to have immediate, unfettered access to the crash site of MH17 and for the bodies of the victims to be returned. Russian President Vladimir Putin must use his influence to compel Russian-backed separatists to cooperate with the investigation, stop tampering with the evidence and grant investigators access to the scene, Obama says at the White House. EPA/SHAWN THEW SHAWN THEW / EPA

President Obama is now back at the White House, but as he even discovered on his vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, events -- especially international ones -- are still dictating his presidency. In fact, that’s largely been the story of his second term. The New York Times’ Michael Shear noted that Obama spent 15 days on his vacation, delivered three presidential statements, played nine rounds of golf, took two hikes, had three dinners out, and even partied with Hillary Clinton one night. (And that doesn’t include what he did during his 48 hours in Washington.) But consider all of the events that happened during that time. The increasing military campaign against ISIS. The domestic violence and unrest in Ferguson, MO. And the grisly murder of American journalist James Foley. All of these events and others (think Eastern Ukraine, the unaccompanied minors flocking to the U.S. border, the Israel-Hamas conflict) have contributed in sending President Obama’s approval rating to the low 40s -- a rough place for his party 71 days until the midterm elections. The irony here, of course, is that the U.S. economy is now in the strongest position it’s been in during Obama’s time in office. And health care doesn’t pack the punch it did six months ago. But it’s other events controlling his presidency rather than Obama controlling events. The president has no public events on his schedule, but he meets at the White House with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at 11:15 am ET, and then chats with senior advisers at 3:30 pm.

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When and how the U.S. pursues military action against ISIS in Syria

Regarding the increasing military campaign against ISIS, the question isn’t IF the United States will take against the Islamic militants in Syria; instead it’s HOW and WHEN. As we learned from that unsuccessful attempt to free James Foley another captured Americans, the U.S. military isn’t afraid of going into Syria. But it needs a legal basis for activity. Does it get that through Congress? Through permission from Assad (how ironic that would be!)? If ISIS is targeted in Syria, we won’t know until after the fact. The White House will not put the president out before the strikes occur; it will put him out after the strikes have happened to explain the justification. In addition, the White House will need some congressional authorization at some point if only to PAY for the operations in Iraq -- that could come under the radar as an amendment to the Continuing Resolution (remember, Congress has to approve a budget by Oct. 1)… it’s basically the ONLY THING Congress HAS to do when it returns for its few weeks of work before the final election push.

Two public-policy lessons from Ferguson

Today is the funeral for Michael Brown, the teenager who was allegedly killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. The nearly two weeks of violence and protests after Brown’s death should teach two important public-policy lessons for cities and communities. One, your police force needs to reflect the demographics of the community it’s serving; if it doesn’t, that force won’t gain the trust of the community. And it means it is only a matter of time before your community is the next Ferguson. Two, having a militarized police force doesn’t get the community’s trust, either. “Jolted by images of protesters clashing with heavily armed police officers in Missouri, President Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of the government’s decade-old strategy of outfitting local police departments with military-grade body armor, mine-resistant trucks, silencers and automatic rifles, senior officials say,” the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Hillary approaches the point of no return

Last week’s news that Hillary Clinton is headed to Iowa next month is significant for this reason: She’s approaching the point of no return -- meaning that if she’s going to be a “no-go” in 2016, that announcement needs to come sooner rather than later. “A ‘no’ has to come earlier than a ‘yes,’ a Democratic strategist told one of us. “If it's a no, I suspect she won't let it drag on.” The question is timing, of course. Some Democrats believe she has until early next year to state she’s NOT running. Others believe that it should come before or after the midterm elections. All of her activity over the past few months -- the book tour, the distancing from Obama (either real or perceived), the Sept. 14 visit to Iowa with her husband -- point to a White House run. And that has done two things. One, it has frozen the Democratic field. Two, it possibly opens Clinton up to blame from Democrats if she passes on a presidential run and if Republicans win the White House in 2016. The logic: Clinton freezing the field didn’t give prospective Democrats enough time to grow their national profile.

Counting the trips to Iowa and New Hampshire

Speaking of how Hillary has frozen the Democratic field, check out these numbers: According to data compiled by U.S. News & World Report and additional reporting by NBC News, Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have made a combined 12 trips to Iowa and New Hampshire since the beginning of 2013. By comparison, Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Rep. Paul Ryan have made nearly three times as many visits -- a combined 30.

Covering Rand Paul in Guatemala

Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul made a different kind of visit recently -- to Guatemala. NBC’s Chris Jansing, on “Meet the Press,” covered Paul’s trip to that Central American country to help get medical care. Per Jansing’s report: “In a makeshift operating room in remote Guatemala, a side of Sen. Rand Paul most people have never seen. The eye surgeon, on a mission to help the blind and near-blind see in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty. He's one of 28 American volunteers organized by the Moran Eye Center in Utah.” But the piece also noted that Paul’s trip had a political component: “There is no doubt about the humanitarian aspect of this trip. Paul performed dozens of pro bono cataract surgeries over three days, in a region where there are only two eye surgeons for 800,000 people. Chronicling it all are Paul's advertising team… Also along, a film crew from conservative Super PAC Citizens United, with equipment that included a drone for aerial shots, and its co-founder and President Dave Bossie.”

New documents out of Wisconsin show Scott Walker and team trying to funnel money to outside group

The latest revelations in that campaign-finance probe out in Wisconsin aren’t good news for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, because they show that Walker and his team played a role in getting money for the 2011-2012 recalls funneled to an outside group. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Friday: “Gov. Scott Walker prodded outside groups and individuals to funnel millions of dollars into Wisconsin Club for Growth — a pro-Walker group directed by his campaign adviser — during the recall elections in 2011 and 2012, according to court documents unsealed for a short time Friday afternoon.” More: “‘The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth,’ said an April 28, 2011, email from Kate Doner, a Walker campaign consultant, to R.J. Johnson, an adviser to Walker's campaign and the advocacy group. ‘Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.’ In the email, Doner wrote to Johnson that Walker wanted Wisconsin Club for Growth exclusively to coordinate campaign themes. ‘As the Governor discussed ... he wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging,’ she wrote.”

70 races in 70 days

Tuesday will mark 70 days until Election Day 2014, and beginning on that day, First Read will start profiling a race a day -- 70 races in 70 days. So stay tuned for our first profile tomorrow: Alaska Senate. (We’ll be doing the races alphabetically).

The polls that matter

For the rest of this midterm season, First Read each morning also will be highlighting the polls that matter -- that is, the polls getting attention and buzz. And our first entry is the WMUR poll out of New Hampshire, showing Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) leading Scott Brown (R) by just two points, 46%-44%, after Shaheen held a 12-point lead a month ago. There are two ways to look at this poll. One, something happened in the last month (focus on immigration? Republicans coming home to Brown) that tightened the race. Two, it’s an outlier and a reminder that you should always take August polling with a grain of salt.

The top ads to watch

Each morning, we’ll also be highlighting the buzzy TV ads. And we start this series with the health-care ad that Sen. Mark Pryor (D) dropped in Arkansas late last week. “When Mark was diagnosed with cancer, we thought we might lose him,” father David Pryor says to camera. “My family and my faith helped me through the rough times,” Pryor adds, looking at his father. “No one should be fighting an insurance company while you’re fighting for your life. That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from cancelling your policy if you get sick or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.” Yes, he doesn’t say the words “Obamacare” or “Affordable Care Act,” but it’s the biggest advertisement defense of the law we’ve seen from a Democrat -- especially a red-state one.

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