By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
The nation’s employers added 192,000 jobs during the month February, almost exactly in line with economists' expectations, and the unemployment rate dropped from 9.0 percent to 8.9 percent. It's the first time we’ve been below 9 percent since April 2009.
Not only are both sides already tyring to take credit for the recovery — House Speaker John Boehner already tweeted on the jobs numbers: "The path to prosperity lies in liberating our economy from excess spending, regulation, debt" — today's employment report is also one more reason for Obama and the Democrats to avoid taking on entitlements (unlike their Republican counterparts, some of whom appear ready for fight.)
The president and Democrats are going to want to tout their success in getting the economy back on track instead of dwelling on doomsday deficit scenarios. But Boehner said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published today that he’s ready to “go out and help Americans understand how big the problem is that faces us” in order to drum up popular support for reforming the Social Security and Medicare systems. http://on.wsj.com/eVkcpT
“People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is, but most Americans don't have a clue,” Boehner told the Journal’s Naftali Bendavid and Janet Hook. “Once they understand how big the problem is, I think people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions may be."
So, why are key House Republicans convinced that entitlement reform is a winning issue especially when everything we know about modern politics tells us that their decision to tackle entitlement reform is a sure loser?
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll out this week found that the vast majority of Americans considered it “unacceptable” to make big cuts in entitlement programs in order to shrink the deficit. (As the Journal notes, “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’”)
However, the same survey showed around 60 percent of those polled support reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits for wealthier Americans and a majority are in favor of raising the retirement age from 66 to 69 by 2075.
In an interview with ABC News this week, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said it was up to President Obama to take the first step on the entitlement issue. http://abcn.ws/f1UdbT
“You've got the biggest microphone, you've got the biggest podium but we're ready to sign on before you go public,” Blunt said of the president. “They've got to get serious and we got to get serious.”
Boehener seemed to go a step further, suggesting he could give the president some political cover: “I offered to the president we could lock arms and walk out and begin the conversation about the size of the problem,” he said in the Journal interview.
Despite the GOP's tough talk on entitlement reform, there are also signs of divison within the conference. As ABC's Jonathan Karl points out, in the Journal interview Boehner spoke in broad terms about setting "goals" for reform — different words than he used in a speech last weekend in which he said that Republicans would "specifically" deal with entitlement reform. The Journal story notes that the House Speaker "made it clear the Republicans are not themselves offering a detailed plan anytime soon." http://abcn.ws/eN9Xgo
“Those are two different things,” Boehner’s spokesman told ABC News when asked for a response. “We can deal with it ‘specifically’ without a ‘detailed plan’”
Boehner’s interview also appears to be at odds with recent comments by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. "Republicans have said, when we produce our budget later this month, or the beginning of next," Cantor said on MSNBC, "we are going to include entitlement reform in that budget.”
BOTTOM LINE: "Republican Congressional leaders are deeply divided about whether they should go forward with their own specific — or detailed — plan on entitlement reform before President Obama offers his own plan," Karl writes. "Some Republican leaders believe it would be foolish to offer a plan on their own because it would lead to Democratic attacks. Others, including House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, believe they have not choice but to offer a plan."
And, if the goal is to get Obama to embrace — or at least meet them halfway on the issue — events yesterday suggest that'll be harder than it looks. The White House says they're offering the GOP an olive branch on budget cuts, but the GOP said “good try.” For starters, the Obama administration and Republicans are locked in a mathematical debate about just how much Democrats are willing to cut from the budget. During negotiations on Capitol Hill yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden proposed cutting $6.5 billion from federal programs this year. Republicans immediately dismissed it. http://abcn.ws/dG86Wa
What’s next? White House National Economic Policy Director Gene Sperling hinted: “We are willing to cut spending further if we can agree on cuts and find common ground in a way that does not do harm to the economy in the short term or in the long term through gutting education, research, innovation — things that are critical to winning our economic future.”
WHITE HOUSE WATCH: It's important to remember what Sen. Blunt said — that Obama's the one with the bully pulpit and today he gets to be the guy with the bipartisan image — a big advantage in the coming budget and entitlement reform battles. Today is a case-in-point: President Obama travels to Miami, Florida where he, along with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will visit a classroom at Miami Central Senior High School. Afterwards the president will speak about education to a broader audience.
Also on the president’s agenda, a meeting this morning with his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel. And, later today Obama headlines two Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraisers in Florida before returning back to Washington, DC in the evening. (h/t ABC’s Sunlen Miller).
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Jonathan Karl and Rick Klein interview Jackie Gingrich Cushman, author of “The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own.” Also on the program, Amy B. Dean, a former local AFL-CIO chapter CEO, who has become a prominent voice on labor and union issues. She is the co-author of a book, “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.” Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
LIBYA AND GAS PRICES: ABC’s Jake Tapper reports that notes today that the crisis in Libya has knocked out production of as many as 1 million barrels of oil a day, pushing up worldwide gas prices and fueling economic uncertainty in the U.S. The White House, meanwhile, has resisted calls by some members of Congress to open up the country’s strategic petroleum reserves, saying, according to The New York Times, that “excess oil production capacity around the world remains well above the amount of oil whose flow has been disrupted by unrest in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. Officials said that opening the spigot on the strategic reserve would send precisely the wrong signal to domestic consumers and international oil markets at a time when gasoline prices have risen only modestly and oil supplies are not yet severely strained.” http://nyti.ms/g4ccVv
Watch Jake Tapper’s “Good Morning America” report: http://abcn.ws/gkn8qS
And President Obama, for the first time in public yesterday, called for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to step down, while also acknowledging that the Libyan leader’s defiance means “there is a danger of a stalemate that over time could be bloody.” “Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave,” the president said, while calling for an end to violence and a need to meet the “aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity.” http://abcn.ws/f3y6E6
WISCONSIN PROTESTERS ORDERED OUT. Pro-union protesters vacated the Wisconsin Capitol on the 17th day of round-the-clock demonstrations after a judge ordered the building closed last night. ABC’s Seni Tienabeso, Chris Bury and Barbara Pinto have more: “Judge John Albert in Dane County, Wis., ruled that people are allowed to attend hearings at the Capitol and enter the building during normal business hours, but not to sleep there overnight when it normally is closed, according to ABC News affiliate WKOW in Madison, Wis. … Earlier Thursday, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, said layoff notices to at least 1,500 Wisconsin state workers would start going out as early as Friday if the state legislature doesn't pass a controversial ‘budget-repair bill’ that calls for the stripping away of state employees' collective bargaining rights. As Walker threatened layoffs, his colleagues in the state Senate filed a contempt order against 14 Democrats who fled the state and made it impossible for a new budget to pass. Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the body, but must have 20 members present to vote on Walker's proposal. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the contempt order will compel that the 14 Democrats be "taken into custody" once they are in Wisconsin.” http://abcn.ws/h85W7E
MEET LABOR’S BEHIND-THE-SCENES POWERHOUSES. [Who] decides where Big Labor's political money goes in election campaigns and in off-year pushes like bussing thousands of pro-union protesters to Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other places where Republican officials are challenging public employee unions? It's time to meet the three most important union bosses you've probably never heard of, the political directors for the AFL-CIO, [AFSCME], and the [SEIU],” Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold writes. “Karen Ackerman: The AFL-CIO's political director of 15 years is the first woman to fill the position, coordinating the federation's huge electoral and legislative campaign operations from strategy sessions to lobbying blitz or get-out-the-vote drive. … Larry Scanlon: He has been political director of the 1.6 million member AFSCME, an AFL-CIO affiliate, since 1996, and came with 20 years experience in political jobs with an AFSCME New York affiliate. Scanlon skillfully built on AFSCME's history of taking the lead in political activism, but has been more of a backroom political director than Ackerman. … Jon Youngdahl: Since February 2007, he has been the national political director for the Service Employees International Union with responsibility for coordinating its electoral and legislative field campaign operations. Like all good political directors, Youngdahl came from a strong state level background, a veteran in Minnesota politics.” http://bit.ly/g5CvX7
OBAMA RE-ELECTION OPERATION STARTS ITS ENGINES. “President Barack Obama’s 2012 fundraising team has begun nailing down major cash commitments from top donors during a coast-to-coast ‘listening’ tour — the surest sign to date that the vaunted Obama money machine is back in business,” Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports. “Former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, along with Hollywood producer-turned-Democratic fundraiser Rufus Gifford, has been aggressively recruiting big-money contributors who maxed out to the 2008 campaigns of Obama and Hillary Clinton, donors and party officials told POLITICO. One of their pitches: an offer to join a new ‘National Finance Council,’ which would entail a contribution to the Democratic National Committee of up to $61,600 per couple, per year. That money could be used to fund support operations for Obama’s reelection effort, in addition to smaller donations they would be expected to make directly to Obama’s as-yet-unincorporated Chicago-based campaign, according to donors.” http://politi.co/hOHxOf
THE HUNTSMAN-ROMNEY CONNECTION. “Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney go way back,” The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz writes. “A showdown between Huntsman, 50, and Romney, 63, would likely be the most bitter of the coming election. The respective former governors of Utah and Massachusetts have vast fortunes, silver tongues and great hair. They are also distant cousins, descended from a Mormon apostle who played a key role in the faith's founding. The two men enjoyed the early support of powerful and devout fathers and performed the church's missionary work – Romney in France during the Vietnam War and Huntsman in Taiwan. For years, the clans remained close, until the two scions sought to lead the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a coveted post that promised to boost political prospects. The Games went to Romney, and the family bonds froze over when Huntsman endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Romney in the 2008 presidential contest.” http://wapo.st/i3scyG
JOHN EDWARDS’ MOMENT OF TRUTH. “The moment of truth seems to be fast approaching for John Edwards as lawyers involved in the case say federal prosecutors have wrapped up their grand jury investigation and await a decision on whether Edwards should face criminal charges,” ABC News’ Brian Ross, Jim Hill and Avni Patel write. “The key question is whether Edwards knew that money from supporters of his 2008 presidential campaign was paid to his mistress to keep her quiet and out of the public eye while he ran for President and she had his baby. ‘The two things that they have to prove would be first, that the money that was paid to this woman was done for the purpose of influencing the election and secondly, that it was done with Mr. Edwards' knowledge or in coordination with him,’ Gerald Herbert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, told ABC News.” http://abcn.ws/fN8FQ6
@HenryBarbour: Haley at WSJ conf today in CA on energy issues. Safe bet he'll discuss Obama team's desire for higher gas prices to save us from ourselves.
* Get The Note delivered to your inbox every day.