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First Thoughts: Obama Faces Biggest Foreign Policy Test Yet

Image: President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Northern Ireland.

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013. AP, file

Obama’s two immediate tests vs. Putin… Kerry: Putin is operating from a position of weakness, not strength… Kerry also heads to Ukraine on Tuesday… The 2014 campaign season kicks off in the Lone Star State, and Texas features four Texas subplots we’re watching… Exclusive: DCCC names its first round of candidates for its “Red to Blue” program… Obama’s challenge to Netanyahu ahead of his 1:45 pm ET meeting with Israel’s prime minister… And WaPo reports that upcoming Ryan budget to focus on welfare reform, Head Start, and Medicaid.

Obama’s two immediate tests vs. Putin

President Obama now faces one of the biggest foreign-policy challenges of his time in office -- how to respond to Russia’s brazen military intervention in Ukraine. Indeed, Obama has two immediate tests. The first: get the Western world to speak with one voice in condemning Vladimir Putin’s decision to send military troops into Ukraine. And while it has been a painstaking 72 hours on this front, the West appears united here, at least for now. The second test for the president: making it clear to Russia that there are negative consequences for its actions. No one (the administration, Republicans, other world leaders) is even considering a military response. But Obama and Europe have several other options available, particularly on the economic front. “There could even be ultimately asset freezes, visa bans. There could be certainly a disruption of any of the normal trade routine, and there could be business drawback on investment in the country,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “The ruble is already going down and feeling the impact of this.” Sometimes the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him. And at some point, the administration can’t simply speculate about possible responses; it needs to respond.

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Kerry: Putin is operating from a position of weakness

The United States also is trying to send the message to the bully that he’s operating from a position of weakness -- not strength. “Let me make it clear: President Putin is not operating from a place of strength here,” Kerry added to NBC’s David Gregory yesterday. “Yanukovych was his supported president. Yanukovych was thrown out despite Putin's support. Yanukovych turned on his own people. President Putin is using force in a completely inappropriate manner that will invite the opprobrium of the world. And it already is. He is not going to gain by this. He may be able to have his troops for some period of time in Crimea unless he resolves this. But the fact is, he's going to lose on the international stage, Russia is going to lose, the Russian people are going to lose, and he's going to lose all of the glow that came out of the Olympics, his $60 billion extravaganza.” It is pretty amazing that Russia’s actions here have occurred just ONE WEEK after the Winter Olympics it hosted had concluded. It also comes AFTER Putin wrote these words in his Sept. 2013 New York Times op-ed regarding Syria: “Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” Hmmm…

Kerry heads to Ukraine

Per NBC’s Catherine Chomiak, a senior administration official announced that Secretary of State Kerry will travel to Ukraine on Tuesday, meeting with the transitional government and public there. "Secretary Kerry will travel to Kiev. He will be there on Tuesday for consultations with the transitional Ukrainian government,” the official said. “He will also meet with members of the Rada, we expect, civil society and talk about steps we are taking to support Ukraine economically, to support Ukraine politically and to address the needs that they have."

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Campaign season kicks off in the Lone Star State and the four Texas subplots we’re watching

On Tuesday, Texas will be the first state to hold its primary for 2014 midterm season. While there isn’t a truly competitive contest we’re watching – Sen. John Cornyn is expected to cruise to victory in his Senate GOP primary against Rep. Steve Stockman – Texas does feature four subplots that are party of larger storylines that we’ll be following all year long. The four:

1. Power of women candidates: Make no mistake, Wendy Davis is the big underdog in this year’s gubernatorial contest. But if Texas is EVER going to turn blue, Democrats at least need an inspiring candidate who bring (and register) new voters into the fold.

2. Power of the Tea Party: Tuesday’s key primary also is our first GOP Establishment-vs.-Tea Party fight of the year: incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (the No. 2 ranking GOP senator) against outspoken conservative Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX). Cornyn is the big favorite, and Stockman is incredibly flawed. But this Tea Party dynamic is going to be interesting to watch from now through August.

3. Power of political dynasties: There are many famous last names on the ballot this year -- and the dynastic candidate in Texas to watch is George P. Bush, who’s running for Texas Land Commissioner. Bush is Jeb’s son; W. Bush’s nephew; and H.W. Bush’ grandson.

4. Power of demographics: Given that Texas is now a minority-majority state (45% white, 38% Latino, 12% black, 4% Asian), the question many Democrats and political observers have asked is: Could Texas turn blue, and could that impact future presidential electoral maps? Given current polling, Texas doesn’t appear to be going blue anytime. But does that maybe change come 2018? 2020? Beyond?

Early voting begins today in Illinois

After Texas, the next state to hold its 2014 primaries will be Illinois, which goes on March 18. But early voting begins today in Illinois.

Exclusive: DCCC names its first round of candidates for its “Red to Blue” program

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee today is announcing the first round of candidates for its “Red to Blue” program, which highlights the top campaigns in districts the party is trying to flip from Republican to Democratic. The 16 on the list, 10 of whom are women:

AR-02 – Patrick Henry Hays

CA-21 – Amanda Renteria

CO-06 – Andrew Romanoff

FL-02 – Gwen Graham

IA-03 – Staci Appel

IL-13 – Ann Callis

MI-01 – Jerry Cannon

MI-07 – Pam Byrnes

MT-AL – John Lewis

NM-02 – Roxanne Lara

NV-03: Erin Bilbray

NJ-03 – Aimee Belgard

NY-04 – Kathleen Rice

NY-11 – Domenic Recchia

NY-23 – Martha Robertson

VA-10 – John Foust

“These candidates earned their places in our battle-tested program because of their hard work and the competitive nature of their districts, and we will continue to work with them to build and execute winning campaigns,” DCCC Chairman Steve Israel said in a statement. The DCCC has identified another 12 Democratic House candidates as “Emerging races. But if you want to see another signal that Democrats are admitting that their road to the majority is a long (and maybe unreachable) one, note that these 16 “Red to Blue” are short of the 17 House seats Democrats need to win back the House in November. What’s left unsaid here: Democrats essentially know they don’t have a real shot at the majority this year; at best, this year is about getting into position to get the majority in 2016.

Obama’s challenge to Netanyahu

Per NBC’s Frank Thorp, the House of Representatives has canceled its votes scheduled for tonight due to the snow in DC, but President Obama’s 1:45 pm ET with Israeli PM Netanyahu is still on. And the meeting comes after the president issued this challenge to Netanyahu: The United States is going to be unable to “manage the international fallout” if Israel is seen as not wanting a peace deal with the Palestinians. “If you see no peace deal, and continued aggressive settlement construction -- and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time -- if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama told Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

Upcoming Ryan budget to focus on welfare reform, Head Start, and Medicaid

Lastly, don’t miss this Washington Post piece: “As a direct counter to President Obama’s recent emphasis on the gap between rich and poor, the upcoming House Republican budget will focus on welfare reform and recommend a sweeping overhaul of social programs, including Head Start and Medicaid. The push, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, returns the GOP’s attention to a policy front that animated the party in the 1990s and signals Republicans’ desire to expand their pitch to voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections. This new effort comes after the party spent months fixated on combating the federal health-care law and engaged in intraparty squabbles over fiscal strategy.”

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