Monday, January 25, 2010

Biden Out (Beau That Is), Bayh at Risk, Full Steam Ahead on Health Care?, Your Guide to the State of the Union

Beau Isn't Running
Beau Biden has decided not to seek the Senate seat that was vacated by his father assuming the Vice Presidency this past January. This is a major blow to Democrats in the state, who had been counting on the popular Biden brand name to carry the race against very popular At Large Rep. Mike Castle (R). With Biden out of the race and no star candidates in the mix, I'll move this race from a Toss-Up to a Lean GOP Pick-Up, pending polling information.

I guess the move wasn't terribly shocking, as this is shaping up to be a rough year for Democrats in November and Biden would've been fighting a pick 'em race against a popular ex-Governor and rare true moderate. Why should Biden risk his popularity now, when he could wait for an easier shot, in a better year, in heavily Democratic Delaware.

Bayh No Lock
Popular, well, at least, I thought he was popular, moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D) will not have a walk either in his race either. A just-released Rasmussen poll shows him down 3% against potential opponent Rep. Mark Pence and up only 3% against less well known John Hostettler.

It is not clear yet if Pence will run and this is only one poll. I will move it from a Likely DEM Hold to a Lean DEM Hold pending information on Pence's possibly candidacy and additional polling. This is another one to add to the mix of races that would've seemed like easy defenses a year ago but are now competitive. The same poll found Obama's Approve minus Disapprove in Indiana to be at -13%, in a state that he won by a slim margin in 2008.

Full Speed Ahead with Health Care?
Reports out of Washington are that after President Obama's seeming concession to a smaller-scale health care bill that Pelosi and Reid may push ahead with a two-pronged approach of passing the Senate measure in the House and then using reconciliation to make changes to the bill later on.

The reconciliation process would require only 51 Senate votes but can only be used on the provisions related to taxation and spending. So, for instance, they could be used to alter the provisions pertaining to taxes on high-cost insurance plans, but could not be used to modify the provisions related to pre-existing conditions. It is debatable whether modifying the abortion-funding rules falls within the scope of reconciliation, and that is likely to be a contentious issue with passing the bill in the House. But it is likely if the House passed the bill that Democrats could muster 60 votes for a stand-alone change to explicitly prohibit abortion funding, if it was part of the quid pro quo.

If the reports of this plan are true, this is a dramatically bold plan, in the face of the Massachusetts defeat. But it is also the best possible long-term path for Democrats. To come out of two years with dominant majorities without real reform on their signature issue would be a disaster. And while the GOP likes to point to the unpopularity of the overall bill, almost all of the individual provisions of the bill are popular, indicating to me that the public may like it better as a law than they did as a bill.

Even if Pelosi and Reid push ahead with this plan, it is far from a done deal. They have to convince liberals to accept a more moderate Senate bill and have to convince at least some Blue Dogs that this bill is worth risking their necks in November for. No easy feat given the way the Democratic party has been running scared for the past week. But we'll see.

State of the Union Viewers Guide
President Obama gives his first official State of the Union speech tomorrow night, although his address to a joint session of Congress a year ago was essentially the same forum, and in light of the events of the past couple of weeks, it is highly anticipated for us political watchers. Here are my things to watch:

(1) What does he say about his priorities from last year?
Is it full steam ahead on Health Care, public opinion be damned? Is this a moral or an economic issue? Will we scale back or push for all we can get? Or is this issue headed to the back burner with little mention?

Is Cap and Trade still on the table? Will the President push it or ignore that priority from last year? Will he say anything about Copenhagen?

(2) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
What will he stay about the stimulus? Call it successful but not enough? Say that it did what was intended? What will he propose going forward? What promises will he make about unemployment, if any?

(3) The Deficit
The rumor is that he is going to propose a 3-year freeze on spending for a large portion of domestic discretionary spending. Was this a trial balloon or will he propose it? Will he talk about sun-setting the Bush tax cuts in 2011? What will he say about the balance of the stimulus? How about the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan? Will he even mention entitlement reform, the elephant in the room? Will he explicitly push Congress to appoint a bi-partisan commission, with a straight up or down vote on their recommendations?

(4) Foreign Policy
Does it get much mention or is it pushed to the back? What will he say about GITMO and his failure to meet one of his first executive orders? Will he talk about winding down Iraq? Any shift in tone on Afghanistan?

(5) Small Ball / Triangulation
Will we see some Bill Clinton-style small ball, triangulated initiatives? Remember 100,000 more cops on the street and Family Medical Leave -- are things like this in the offing? WIll the tone be more about the big, bold ideas or the small practical ones?

(6) What is the State of the Union?
I remember Bill Clinton saying "the State of the Union has never been stronger", a triumphant declaration of victory in a time of sub 4% unemployment and the beginnings of the internet boom. Clearly the President can't say this. But what will he say that recognizes the struggle ordinary people are feeling yet conveys confidence in the future? How will he solve the "Stockdale Paradox", named for Admiral Stockdale, who, as a POW in Vietnam, figured out a way to remain confident that he would be rescued without setting a specific date.

It is an almost impossible speech given the current circumstances, but the President needs a home run performance to recharge his administration and his priorities. He needs to walk the line between pragmatic and bold. He needs some quick wins and some big wins. Most of all, he needs to reshape the dialogue.

I'll be watching, as I suspect most of you will too. State of the Unions are always impressive and entertaining, with all the trappings of Congress and the Presidency. And they do matter in terms of setting the agenda, perhaps more than any other speeches. And perhaps no speech given by a President known for giving some famous speeches, will be more important to his Presidency.

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