Exactly two months ago to this day, Republicans were the ones flying high after their midterm victories and their takeover of the Senate, while Democrats were on the retreat, divided, and pointing fingers at each other. But as the 114th Congress begins on Tuesday, this isn’t the triumphant beginning that the GOP was hoping for. After all, Republicans find themselves on the defensive (House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s 2002 attendance at a white nationalist group founded by David Duke, House Speaker John Boehner receiving another challenge from conservatives). Meanwhile, the White House believes President Obama has gotten some of his political mojo back (after his actions on immigration and Cuba, plus growing optimism about the economy), and he hits the road later this week to take some credit for the economy and preview his upcoming State of the Union address. This reversal of fortune -- at least for now -- is a reminder of how things always change, sometimes when you least expect it. Just ask the SEC, southern schools, and the college football world after the Jan. 1 playoff games. What goes up later goes back down. And vice versa.
Obama hits the road
As mentioned above, President Obama -- back from his two-week-long vacation in Hawaii -- goes on the road this week to highlight the country’s economic progress, as well as preview themes in his upcoming Jan. 20 State of the Union address. On Wednesday, he travels to Detroit to emphasize how America’s automotive industry is back, NBC’s Kristin Donnelly reported over the weekend. On Thursday, he goes to Phoenix to argue how the housing industry has improved. And on Friday, he and Vice President Biden visit Tennessee to discuss education and manufacturing. Obama promises to be a bigger presence in domestic affairs than many would have thought this time two months ago. And it comes during the longest stretch of good economic news during his presidency. It also comes as the Gallup poll finds his approval rating in the mid-to-high 40s. Of course, it will be interesting where other pre-SOTU polls show his approval rating (our NBC/WSJ poll had him at 45% last month). One thing is for sure: Right now, Obama has a better shot at recovering like Reagan did, versus sinking like George W. Bush.
Four early stories to watch in the 114th Congress
Turning to Congress, there are four stories to watch as the new Congress begins:
- Does Scalise hold on to his No. 3 job in the House GOP leadership? To us, it’s fascinating how the party that told Trent Lott it was time to pack his bags as Senate leader is standing behind Scalise. Of course, there’s a big difference between Lott and Scalise -- it was the George W. Bush White House, with its eyes on re-election, which ultimately gave up on Lott, while Scalise hasn’t made any enemies. Two things will have helped Scalise if he holds on to his job: 1) he talked tax policy, not race, at that white nationalist conference, and 2) African-American Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) has supported him. But remember, let’s see what Scalise’s support looks like after his fellow GOPers get a week of questions about him.
- Does Obama veto the Keystone legislation? On “Meet” yesterday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said that the first bill of the 114th Congress that will reach Obama’s desk will be regarding the Keystone XL pipeline. “The president's going to see the Keystone XL Pipeline on his desk, and it is going to be a bellwether decision by the president,” he said. “He's going to have to decide between jobs and the extreme supporters of not having the pipeline.” In his final news conference of 2014, Obama didn’t sound like someone eager to approve the pipeline. “At issue in Keystone is not American oil. It is Canadian oil... [T]here is very little impact, nominal impact, on U.S. gas prices... Now, the construction of the pipeline itself will create probably a couple thousand jobs.” The question, however, is how many Democrats will support the GOP legislation here.
- How contentious will the immigration fight get? Republicans are ready to challenge Obama over his executive action on immigration. The New York Times: “House Republican officials say they expect to approve a Department of Homeland Security spending measure before the end of January that would deny money to carry out Mr. Obama’s action to ease the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants.” That fight also will spill over into the confirmation of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general. “Is [the executive action] legal, is it not legal, is she going to be the people's attorney, is she going to be a presidential protector?” Barrasso asked. “And that's going to be a big part of this. These hearings are going to be very consequential."
- How many House Republicans buck Boehner in election for speaker? On Sunday, conservative Rep. Louis Gohmert announced that he will challenge John Boehner to be House speaker. There shouldn’t be any real drama -- Boehner is going to win. But the question is how many conservatives will vote against him, and whether they’ll continue to be a pain in his you-know-what, again, over the next two years.
Huckabee leaves Fox News to contemplate 2016 run
In 2016 news, Mike Huckabee announced on Saturday night that he was leaving his Fox News show to contemplate a presidential bid. “I won't make a decision about running until late in the spring of 2015, but the continued chatter has put Fox News into a position that is not fair to them,” he said in a statement. “The honorable thing to do at this point is to end my tenure here at Fox so I can openly talk with potential donors and supporters and gauge support.” If Huckabee does run, he’ll bring some considerable talents to the race – he’ll be the best debater/communicator in the field; social conservatives adore him; and he’s a real economic populist for a party that’s looking to move beyond Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 campaign. But the Washington Post notes his biggest shortcomings: 1) he’s a poor fundraiser and campaign-builder, and 2) economic conservatives HATE him. By the way, we could see as many as three Florida residents running for the GOP presidential nomination -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and yes, Mike Huckabee.
Jeb is setting the early 2016 pace
Huckabee’s announcement on Saturday is also a story about Jeb Bush, because we’re pretty sure that Huckabee wouldn’t have departed his Fox job as soon as he did if Bush hadn’t been making his own moves. We’re cautious to call Jeb the GOP frontrunner right now, but fellow Republicans sure are reacting to him like he’s the frontrunner -- he’s dictating the rules and pace. Speaking of Jeb, one of us wrote a piece over the weekend noting his sterling conservative credentials (on abortion, taxes, welfare, affirmative action), but also trying to answer why so many see him as the “moderate” in the field. “One possible explanation: Today's Republican Party has changed more than Jeb Bush has. Especially on the issues of immigration reform and Common Core education standards.” Then again, GOP strategist Danny Diaz tells First Read that parties always change. “It is the nature of politics. Big political figures who accomplish transcendent things are able to navigate the complexity of party politics, drive effective messaging on what they believe and bring people with them. To varying degrees, that’s the task at hand for any and all of these candidates.”
The problem with America’s disconnect from its military
Maybe the most thought-provoking piece we read over the entire holiday season was from Jim Fallows in the Atlantic. His cover story is about how Americans and politicians are so disconnected from today’s military (there are more farmers in this country than military personnel, he writes) that we don’t treat as a serious institution worthy of public debate and examination. “Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules.” On “Meet the Press,” retired Gen. Dan Bolger echoed that critique. “The military can give you a quick victory over a conventional army,” he said. “It cannot deliver a rebuilt country in the place you go. That takes an effort of the entire U.S. population and government. And moreover, it takes the commitment of the American people for the long term.”
Obama diagnoses his political problem with white working-class voters
Lastly, many missed this in President Obama’s NPR interview over the holidays, but it was the president’s fascinating self-diagnosis of his political problems, especially with white working-class voters. “They hear about an immigration debate or they hear about, you know, debate surrounding Ferguson, and they think, ‘I'm being left out. Nobody seems to be thinking about how tough it is for me right now,’ or ‘I've been down-scaled, I've lost my job,’ et cetera. You know, part of my responsibility then is to communicate directly to those voters.” Of course, diagnosing the problem is one thing; fixing it is another. What frustrates a lot of Obama supporters is that the president has never worked hard enough to fix this problem.
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