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First Read: Is Baltimore Obama's Moment to Lose Restraint on Racial Politics?

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
/ Source: NBC News

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

"Buck It" Time: Is Baltimore Obama’s Moment to Lose Restraint on Racial Politics?

Speaking yesterday about the violence in Baltimore, President Obama was blunt and even came across as incensed. “If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could,” he said during his joint news conference with Japan’s prime minister. “It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant -- and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns.” But Obama also admitted that the politics are difficult. “I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.” But if the fourth quarter of his presidency is the time to say “Buck It” -- as he joked in his White House Correspondents Dinner speech -- shouldn’t this be one of those issues? During his presidency, Obama has sometimes shied away from matters involving race with good reason (remember the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest?) He’s rhetorically been there, yet he’s physically kept a distance. But can he continue to stay away from the streets of Ferguson, or Staten Island, or Baltimore? Isn’t it time to say, “Buck it”? He lamented the fact that the TV cameras will likely move on and not cover the issues of Baltimore and other inner cities once the shiny metal object factor of the violence is over. But if he wants to bring more attention to his policies and these issues, one way is to use the symbolic power of his presidency and show up. Walking the streets of Baltimore, talking to local business owners and residents can’t hurt.

Hillary to call to “end the Era of Mass Incarceration”

In a speech she will deliver at Columbia University this morning, Hillary Clinton will address the unrest in Baltimore and call to “end the Era of Mass Incarceration” -- a rebuke to one of her husband’s policy legacies. According to an aide, Clinton will say that the U.S. needs to reform its criminal justice system by changing the way the country approaches punishment and prison, including offering alternative penalties for low-level offenders. She also will call for body cameras for every police department in the country. Hillary’s remarks follow an apology of sorts that Bill Clinton issued earlier this week in a new foreword on a book about criminal justice reform. “By 1994, violent crime had tripled in 30 years,” he wrote. “Our communities were under assault. We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then. It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.” By the way, Bill and Hillary Clinton aren’t the only ones talking about criminal justice reform. In the same book featuring that Bill Clinton foreword, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Martin O’Malley, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Jim Webb all write about solutions to criminal justice. Even The Daily Show has picked up on the fact that this is an issue uniting right and left.

It’s an issue she’s taken up before

MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald adds that Hillary Clinton joined the growing chorus of bipartisan lawmakers pushing for criminal-justice reform in the months leading up to her presidential announcement. Here she was back in December: “In her strongest comments yet this year on criminal justice, Hillary Clinton called for grappling with ‘hard truths’ about racial discrimination in the justice system, and said ‘weapons of war’ have no place on the streets of American communities,” Seitz-Wald wrote last year.

O’Malley walks the streets of Baltimore -- and gets heckled

Meanwhile, another potential presidential candidate -- who just happens to be a former Baltimore mayor and former Maryland governor -- is in Charm City after cutting short paid speeches he was set to deliver overseas. The New York Times: “Wearing a crisp white button-down collar shirt over a white T-shirt, Mr. O’Malley walked up Pennsylvania Avenue with aides and Blaize Duggan, the chief executive of Penn North Community Resource Center, a nonprofit organization nearby... ‘Is it safe out there?’ Mr. O’Malley asked Mr. Duggan, who told him about the festival atmosphere that had taken hold in the street. Mr. O’Malley then asked if it would be ‘O.K. if I come out.’ It was.” But it wasn’t all positive reaction for O’Malley:

“You made a lot of promises,” the man shouted.

“And I did the best that I could,” the former mayor said.

“In what community? Not in the black community!”

Indeed, the Washington Post was a bit pointed about the reaction O’Malley got: “Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was heckled on a packed street corner in West Baltimore Tuesday, after he cut short a trip to Europe to return to the city he led as mayor for seven years... He was confronted by two men on motorcycles who shouted expletives and blamed the recent violence in the city on O’Malley’s tough-on-crime policies from 1999 to 2007.” That said, one of us ran into him during the early evening on Tuesday, where he was catching up with a pastor of the church that was building the senior center that burned to the ground Monday night. The pastor had nothing but good things to say about O’Malley and even credited him with getting him the initial funding he needed to get the senior center built.

Sanders to announce presidential bid on Thursday

Yesterday afternoon, we learned that Hillary would be getting her first official Democratic primary challenger -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who will announce his presidential bid on Thursday. The news was first reported by Vermont Public Radio, which said Sanders will release a statement on Thursday and hold a campaign kickoff weeks later. Sanders is already up with an op-ed in the Des Moines Register calling to expand Social Security -- not cut it.

Jeb addresses national Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference

After spending yesterday in Puerto Rico, Jeb Bush is in Houston today, where he speaks at the national Hispanic Leadership Conference (Huckabee also addresses the group later tonight). Here was the AP on Bush in Puerto Rico yesterday: “Florida’s former governor Jeb Bush confronted one of the Republican Party’s touchiest debates Tuesday, telling Puerto Ricans that conservatives should be proud that America is ‘an immigrant nation” and value the contribution immigrants make to the United States. Bush, a 2016 GOP presidential prospect, delivered a speech on economic opportunities peppered with Spanish. His audience responded with hearty applause.”

Don’t miss this Clinton Foundation story

There have been so many Clinton Foundation stories in the past week, but don’t miss this one: “181 Clinton Foundation donors who lobbied Hillary’s State Department.” Folks, this is AFTER the safeguards/disclosures put in place after Clinton became Obama’s secretary of state to avoid conflicts of interest. This should be the question for Hillary going forward: If you become president, how do you create safeguards that you won’t be influenced by those who have given money to the Clinton Foundation or Bill Clinton (through his speaking fees)? And assuming the Clinton campaign is eventually going to release a policy that likely will include a voluntary ban by the former president on paid speeches if she’s president, why not announce that now… why make it look like the campaign is being dragged into a policy like that.

Supreme Court seems divided on same-sex marriage

Finally, here’s NBC’s Pete Williams on yesterday’s big Supreme Court case. “Historic arguments over same-sex marriage got underway before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, with justices drilling lawyers on opposing sides on the power of states to prohibit gay unions. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a swing vote, pointed out that for centuries marriage was understood as between a man and a woman. He asked whether the public and scholars need more time to debate changes to marriage. This definition has been with us for millennia. And it ­­it's very difficult for the court to say, oh, well, we know better," Kennedy told Mary Bonauto, a lawyer representing same-sex couples. But Kennedy also grilled John Bursch, a lawyer for states that ban gay marriage, asking how such prohibitions damage traditional marriages. Bursch argued that, absent the central rationale of raising children, same-sex marriage weakens the parents' commitment to remaining together if their own relationship breaks down.”

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