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First Thoughts: Obama's Hands Tied By Russian Crisis

President Barack Obama and his team are handcuffed dealing with the events in Ukraine instead of picking the foreign-policy focus.

The focus of a president’s second term usually turns more to foreign policy, especially once it seems like domestic priorities are totally stalled, you know, like it appears now. But for President Obama and his administration, the events in Ukraine and Russia probably aren’t what they had in mind on the foreign-policy front -- especially with key midterm elections slightly more than seven months away. The president would prefer to be picking and choosing the foreign-policy focus he would like to have, say, like his event yesterday with the Palestinian leader on the ever-elusive Mideast peace deal. Bottom line: Obama and his team are handcuffed dealing with this thorny issue when they have plenty of domestic work to do to help their party in November (see the president’s 41% job-approval rating in last week’s NBC/WSJ poll, as well as 41% approving his handling of the economy). And as we wrote yesterday, it’s highly unlikely that this foreign-policy standoff gets resolved in a triumphant way that helps Obama politically; this isn’t one of those crises where the public rallies around the commander-in-chief. Even if the White House pretty much gets what it wants -- Europe stands united with the U.S., Putin backs down even somewhat -- it won’t be a “killing Osama bin Laden” moment. So the best Team Obama can hope for is that the situation goes away. And in that respect, the 2010 BP spill comes to mind. That was an event during the last midterm season that dominated the White House’s time and energy, and that trapped the president in Washington. Of course, Ukraine and the BP spill are two completely different events, but they both have served to handcuff the president months before the midterms.

Flashback to 2012

Romney criticizes Obama on foreign policy: Given the events in Ukraine and Crimea, Mitt Romney pens an “I told you so” Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing President Obama -- as well as Hillary Clinton -- on foreign policy. “Able leaders anticipate events, prepare for them, and act in time to shape them. My career in business and politics has exposed me to scores of people in leadership positions, only a few of whom actually have these qualities. Some simply cannot envision the future and are thus unpleasantly surprised when it arrives. Some simply hope for the best. Others succumb to analysis paralysis, weighing trends and forecasts and choices beyond the time of opportunity,” Romney says in the piece. “President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton traveled the world in pursuit of their promise to reset relations and to build friendships across the globe. Their failure has been painfully evident: It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office, and now Russia is in Ukraine. Part of their failure, I submit, is due to their failure to act when action was possible, and needed.” The response you’ll probably hear from Democrats is if Romney couldn’t anticipate and shape events in his own presidential campaign, the former one-term governor might also not have an easy time dealing with the most vexing foreign-policy matters. That said, it’s very interesting that Romney decided to include Clinton in his op-ed critique. This is the first time that Romney’s done something post-2012 that’s actually made us pause and seriously think he’s at least got an open-mind regarding a third presidential bid in 2016.

Primary Day in Illinois

Illinois today becomes the second state across the country to hold its primaries for the 2014 midterm elections. The top contest we’re watching is the Republican race for governor. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll found businessman Bruce Rauner (pronounced RON-er) leading the GOP pack with 36% of Republican voters, state Sen. Kirk Dillard at 23% (Dillard was the first Republican to ever appear in a TV ad for Obama), and state Sen. Bill Brady at 18%. The winner will face Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, who is one of the most vulnerable governors in the country. Quinn also has been one of the most politically resilient governors -- we all thought there was no way he was going to win in 2010, and “we” also thought he was going to go down in a Democratic primary (either against a Lisa Madigan or a Bill Daley) this cycle. Madigan never ran and Daley dropped out. And if he beats Rauner or the ultimate GOP nominee in November, he will once again prove his resiliency. But right now, he’s in serious trouble, and the race is perhaps the GOP’s top pick-up opportunity. Polls in Illinois close at 8:00 pm ET.

Health-care enrollment hits 5 million

On Monday, the Obama administration announced that 5 million have now enrolled in a health insurance plan through either the state or federal exchanges under the health-care law. That means that about 800,000 have enrolled in the past two weeks (given that the administration said 4.2 million had enrolled at the end of February), and it means total enrollment COULD reach 6 million by the March 31 deadline for individuals to have health insurance -- which was the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent projection after the federal website woes. The 7-million figure that was the earlier projection seems out of reach, but 6 million isn’t. Of course, there are the usual caveats here: We don’t know if these new signups are the young and healthy folks insurers want to have a solid risk pool, and we don’t know how many of these 5 million have actually purchased insurance (these are simply folks who have enrolled in a plan). But for all of the problems and hurdles the law has confronted -- the website woes, the GOP resistance, the largely negative coverage -- enrollment has been growing exponentially since the federal website was (mostly) fixed back in December.

Christie Watch

The Newark Star-Ledger reports on the latest records release in the New Jersey bridge scandal, which brings New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s top political adviser, Mike DuHaime, into the picture. “Records released [Monday] by a legislative panel investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closings link Gov. Chris Christie’s chief political strategist to discussions about fallout from the scandal, and show that Christie’s campaign manager was more in the loop than previously known.” More from the paper: “On Dec. 11, Matt Mowers, a former Christie campaign staffer, wrote to Stepien and Mike DuHaime, Christie’s political strategist, saying he had been contacted by the same Wall Street Journal reporter about the lane closings. ‘Not sure how you are handling or wanted handled,’ Mowers wrote. ‘I don’t plan to return his call on this unless you want me to.’ Mowers was named executive director of the Republican Party in New Hampshire in November. An attorney representing DuHaime and his firm, Mercury Public Affairs, said in a statement today that neither have been subpoenaed.”

Edwin Edwards makes it official

Here is one of the best (and colorful) stories we’ll be following this midterm season: “Just three years after his release from federal prison, former Gov. Edwin Edwards is throwing his hat into the open race for Louisiana's 6th Congressional District,” the New Orleans Times Picayune writes. “The 86-year-old Silver Fox, known for his memorable, often shocking quotes and the nearly nine years spent behind bars on extortion, fraud and racketeering charges, made the announcement at a meeting of the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday (March 17). ‘I acknowledge there are good reasons I should not run. But there are better reasons why I should,’ said the Democrat, who served an unprecedented four terms as governor. He also put to rest questions over whether his status as an ex-con would keep him from being a qualified Congressional candidate: ‘Once and for all I'm positive I can run and I'm confident I can win.’”

Wendy Davis and allies desperately trying to force Abbott to pull a “Clayton Williams”

Make no mistake: Wendy Davis (D) is the BIG underdog in the race for Texas governor -- which might explain why her campaign and surrogates are trying desperately for Greg Abbott (R) to make a Clayton Williams-like mistake. Don’t miss this hit from Texas Democrats on Abbott and his allies on the Lilly Ledbetter Act. “Greg Abbott and his Republican friends have let inequity persist under their watch at the expense of Texas women and families. These out-of-touch comments from Red State Women PAC highlight Republicans' insincerity when it comes to prioritizing equal pay for equal work. Women across Texas only make 82 cents for every dollar men earn; they aren’t too “busy” to demand change for this inequality. Texas Democrats believe that equal pay for equal work is just plain fair and we know that when women succeed, Texas succeeds. Texans won’t be too ‘busy’ to remember that in November.”

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