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What We Learned From Obama's Interview About the 2014 Midterms

Even Obama struggled to answer the difference between a two-seat Democratic majority and a two-seat GOP majority
Image: Chuck Todd interviews President Barack Obama
Chuck Todd interviews President Barack ObamaNBC News

Billions of dollars are being spent on the midterm elections; we continually follow every poll and update on every race; and we’re all gearing up for an Election Night that takes place just 57 days from now. But consider this: Whatever happens in November is unlikely to change things in Washington, especially when it comes to the Senate. The difference between Harry Reid as Senate majority leader and Mitch McConnell is simply more vetoes from President Obama and the face of the filibuster -- in addition to Republicans controlling the Senate committees (like Judiciary, particularly if there’s a Supreme Court vacancy). In his interview on “Meet the Press,” even Obama struggled to answer the difference between a two-seat Democratic majority and a two-seat GOP majority. "There's a sharp difference between the Democratic agenda and the Republican agenda. And the American people need to know that,” he said. “If you've got a Democratic Senate, that means bills are being introduced to raise the minimum wage. That's something Democrats support. We think America needs a raise." (But, of course, a minimum-wage increase hasn’t reached the president’s desk.) And Obama added that Democrats beating expectations in November COULD produce more cooperation in Congress. “I think what it does is to send a message to Republicans that people want to get stuff done.” (But then again, if Obama’s own re-election victory couldn’t “break the fever,” would midterm elections by Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu do the trick?)

NBC/Marist polls show red vs. blue divide

Speaking of the status quo, our new round of NBC/Marist polls confirmed this political dynamic: Republicans are performing well in the red states, while Democrats are holding on in blue and purple states. In Arkansas, Tom Cotton leads incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor by five points among likely voters, 45%-40%, with two minor candidates getting a combined 5%. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is ahead of Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by eight points among likely voters, 47%-39%, with Libertarian David Patterson getting another 8%. And in Colorado, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is up by six points over Rep. Cory Gardner, 48%-42%. To win control of the Senate, Republicans must pick up a net six seats, and they can do that by essentially running the table in states that Obama lost in 2012 – Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. But for a GOP wave to take place on Election Day, Republicans need to win in the blue and purple states that have given the party trouble in past cycles – like Colorado, Iowa and Michigan.


“Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill on Monday amid a backdrop of world crises and a looming showdown over immigration. But they're set to focus most of their effort this month on a more fundamental task: keeping the federal government open,” the Baltimore Sun writes. Obama will meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday to discuss the administration’s efforts to combat ISIS.

What we learned from Obama’s “Meet the Press” interview

There were six things that caught our attention in President Obama’s interview on “Meet the Press” over the weekend:

  • One, he’s delivering a speech Wednesday outlining his plan dealing with ISIS. ("[T]his is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years.”)
  • Two, he’s going to ask Congress to debate and vote on the strategy (though he was careful to note that he believes he ALREADY has the authority to carry out the strategy he’s going outline; that said, he wants a vote).
  • Three, he said that any boots on the ground in Syria have to be Syrian. ("We have a Free Syrian Army and a moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with that we have vetted. They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime.") And he also hinted if there are non-Syrian boots on the ground, then he wants them to be Saudi or Jordanian or Turkish
  • Four, Obama acknowledged that the executive-action delay on immigration is due, in part, to the fact that the unaccompanied minors crossing the border changed the politics of the immigration debate -- and that he needs to explain to the American public what he's doing. ("I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country. But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on unaccompanied children, and why it's necessary.")

What we learned from Obama’s “Meet the Press” interview, Part 2

  • Five, among the more overlooked pieces of news from the interview, the president explained that the U.S. has to take the lead in responding to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. “If we don't make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa, but other parts of the world, there's the prospect then that the virus mutates, it becomes more easily transmittable, and then it could be a serious danger to the United States.” Expect the White House to request some sort of supplement funding bill from Congress, likely to be done this month when they vote on the budget.
  • And six, he admitted that he should have "anticipated" the negative optics of playing golf after delivering a statement on the death of American journalist James Foley. ("I think everybody who knows me, including, I suspect, the press, understands that you take this stuff in and it's serious business. And you care about it deeply. But part of this job is also the theater of it... Well, it's not something that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I'm mindful of that. So the important thing is in addition to that, is am I getting the policies right? Am I protecting the American people? Am I doing what's necessary?") The president wasn’t regretful of the fact that he compartmentalizes (something every president has to learn to do); he regretted how it looked.

Why Obama delayed his immigration action: midterm politics

Back to this weekend’s immigration announcement, the New York Times has a revealing look at what spurred the White House to delay any executive action until after the midterms -- politics. “After a summer in which a surge of Central American migrants into the United States at the southern border had reawakened public worries and anger about immigration, and with Republicans running attack ads against Democratic senators on the topic, the issue had simply become too toxic and combustible for Mr. Obama.” More: “The White House requested polling data in key Senate races and received numbers from Arkansas and Iowa, where voters overwhelmingly sided with those opposed to the possibility of Mr. Obama taking executive action on immigration.” And: “What really happened that moved this whole thing, tragically, was the border crisis, which created this argument of there being a magnet for undocumented immigrants,” the Center for American Progress’ Neera Tanden told the Times.

Democrats’ nightmare scenario

So if this were September of an odd year -- that is, not an election year -- Obama would be issuing an executive order, bank on it. But don’t understate the anger coming from Latino groups. Here’s a nightmare scenario for Democrats: What if, as our NBC/Marist polls showed, Democrats were ALREADY losing the red states? And what if this weekend’s announcement deflates Democrats in places like Colorado (where they’re ahead) and in Florida (where the gubernatorial race is essentially tied)? Bottom line: Will demoralized Latinos punish Democrats?

Romney closes the door on 2016

While Mitt Romney recently left the door SLIGHTLY open to a third presidential run, he closed the door on Sunday. “My time has come,” he said on Fox News. “I had that opportunity. I ran, I didn't win. And now, it's time for someone else to pick up the baton.” It’s worth noting that Romney appears to be more popular right now in Washington than he is outside the Beltway: Our NBC/Marist polls showed his fav/unfav ratings in Arkansas (38%-45%), Colorado (40%-51%), and Kentucky (44%-41%) to be pretty low for someone who has been out of the political limelight over the last year and a half. As we’ve written before, you can attribute the Romney Renaissance to three things: 1) Obama’s rough spell, 2) the vacuum inside the GOP’s 2016 field, and 3) foreign affairs dominating the news. Yes, the former one-term governor of Massachusetts isn’t George F. Kennan reincarnated. But he has more foreign-policy experience than most of the 2016 possibilities.

The GOP field’s vacuum on foreign affairs

And here is a related thought: The longer ISIS and foreign policy dominate the news, the more it’s going to shake up the GOP’s 2016 field. Think of the possible candidates: Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio. Most of these folks are better known for their domestic issues than international ones. Of course, Paul is notable for his traditionally less-hawkish views. And Rubio has been trying to stake out the hawkish turf. But for a party in need of a tough national-security hawk, the “help wanted” ad is still out there. Don’t be surprised if Rob Portman’s boomlet ends up lasting a bit longer -- simply for this very reason. Having a deep Washington/experience resume might actually be an asset… maybe.

McConnell’s tough TV ad

And speaking of national security, don’t miss this TV ad that Mitch McConnell released last week. "These are serious times," a narrator says as a clip shows video from ISIS. “In Kentucky, we have a proven leader. When so many in Washington can't do the job. Shouldn’t Kentucky have a Senator who can?” This is the type of tone you may expect from more Republicans in more states;

First Read’s Race of the Day

CO-6: Coffman vs. Romanoff: The battle between Republican incumbent Mike Coffman and Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff looks slated to be one of the tightest House races in the country -- and one of the most expensive. Coffman is looking to hold on for a fourth term, despite a 2012 redistricting ruling that dumped more rural GOP-leaning areas out of the district. Even though he’s new to the district, Romanoff has fundraising prowess and plenty of name recognition; he’s a former Colorado House speaker who lost a bitter 2010 Democratic Senate primary to Sen. Michael Bennet. Immigration has been a hot button issue in the race, with Coffman moderating past hardline stances and Romanoff distancing himself from tough laws passed during his statehouse tenure. This may be the most evenly divided, ideologically competitive race in the country.

Countdown to Election Day: 57 days

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