By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
Just like that, President Obama finds himself in the midst of one of the most challenging periods of his presidency — and it could get a lot worse.
At home, the White House faces an ongoing debate over how to fund the government, how much to cut and which side — Democrats or Republicans — are going to blink first on the looming issue of entitlement reform.
Both parties on Friday seemed to come to an agreement on a three-week continuing resolution that would keep the government open while cutting about $6 billion. It would continue to fund the government when the current stop-gap bill expires on March 18. http://abcn.ws/f1jm96
“We can't keep on running the government based on two-week extensions,” President Obama said last week. “That's irresponsible.” Republicans have been using the issue to call the president’s leadership into question, arguing that he has been too hands-off in negotiations to solve the budget impasse.
“Look, we're not going to shut down the government, we want the Democrats to step up,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, a top House Republican, said in an interview with CNN yesterday. “You can't negotiate with yourself.”
As the budget deal-making continues in Washington this week, the White House is facing growing pressure on a different front: how tough to get with Libya. Over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone over Libya without specifically addressing whether the Obama administration would support it.
“We welcome this important step by the Arab League, which strengthens the international pressure on Gadhafi and support Libyan people,” Carney said. “The international community is unified in sending a clear message that the violence in Libya must stop and that the Gadhafi regime must be held accountable.”
But how far will the White House go and when? Libya is fast becoming a situation with profound political consequences here at home, as ABC’s Jonathan Karl noted on “This Week”: “If Gadhafi is still in power next year, if Libya is still a mess, this will be a central issue for Republicans. They will say this is Exhibit A of what happens when you have a foreign policy where America does not show leadership. You're already seeing it with some on the Hill saying, look, the French are leading on this. Where is America?” (More from yesterday’s “This Week” roundtable: http://abcn.ws/dYQM8V).
And finally, the administration is facing another test in its response to the crisis in Japan. The U.S. was quick to send in aid, including navy ships, Marine forces, search and rescue teams and a variety of other assistance, but once again, there are lingering domestic consequences — namely a renewed debate over the safety of nuclear energy.
As the New York Times’ John Mr. Broder points out today, “Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. … Now, that is all in question as the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned.” (Some lawmakers, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are already calling on the U.S. to “put the brakes on” its nuclear power programs.) http://nyti.ms/eegKlG
BOTTOM LINE: While President Obama and his team want to keep focused on economy, jobs and today education (more on that below), events overseas are going to be consuming more of his attention. The events in Japan, unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Libya also have huge impact on oil prices, which of course, brings us right back to the economy.
2012 WATCH. Though the Republican presidential field is far from fully formed, the road to re-election for the president isn’t going to be easy. The Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee reports today that Obama advisers "are telling potential donors that he is in a weaker position heading into the 2012 election than he was in 2008 and are detailing potential vulnerabilities of likely opponents, according to people who have seen their presentation.” http://on.wsj.com/gyIROy “The slide show cites Michigan and Pennsylvania as places where Mr. Obama's standing has dropped since 2008 while GOP support has gone up. Using bureaucratic short hand for President of the United States, the slides warn: ‘POTUS maintains clear but narrowed support" and note there is "significant work to do to increase support among key demographics,’” according to the Journal.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten notes that “Twenty months before Election Day, and even before the president officially opens his campaign office, Obama and his White House team are launching a number of efforts to reconnect with the young voters who were among his most fervent supporters in 2008 — but who have soured somewhat on the president since. … The early and aggressive outreach is an indication of how much has changed among young voters in a little more than two years — and how far Obama has to go to rekindle the energy of one of his most politically important constituencies.”
All of this begs the question: Can Team Obama really replicate the 2008 magic? The Midwest, of course, is no longer as fertile or friendly to Obama as it was two years ago. But the issue in the Midwest is less about motivating young people than winning back those who left the Democrats in 2010. In 2008, 60 percent of those who said they were "very worried" about the economy voted for Obama. Two years later, 54 percent of Ohio voters who identified the economy as their number one concern picked GOP candidate John Kasich over Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland whom the Obama team strongly and publicly supported. http://wapo.st/fTz14Y
WHITE HOUSE TODAY: FOCUS ON EDUCATION. President Obama this morning will visit Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va. to speak on education, ABC’s Sunlen Miller notes. During his visit President Obama will call on Congress to change the No Child Left Behind Act and reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act before the start of the next school year. Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Obama administration officials said the president will use his remarks tomorrow to describe specifically how No Child Left Behind can be "fixed." "We must fix NCLB this year," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "It has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or to recognize success." http://abcn.ws/fZy9pA
TWO GOVERNORS, TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO 2012. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is making the case for a change in presidential leadership on Obama’s home turf today. In a speech Barbour will deliver later this morning to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the potential GOP presidential candidate plans to say: “What American needs today is a commitment to economic growth, not government growth: an absolute dedication to appropriately reforming entitlements coupled with an understanding that budget cuts must be matched by policies that promote growth and spread prosperity.”
As the AP’s Liz Sidoti notes, Barbour plans to accuse “Obama of ignoring the growing national debt, and being AWOL on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which Barbour calls ‘a failure of leadership.’ ‘It can be done — but it must be led by a president who is actually committed to change,’ Barbour says, all but offering himself up as just the person for the job.” After his Chicago event, Barbour will kick-off a two-day campaign-style swing through Iowa, which includes a series of meetings around the state as well as a major speech to an Iowa Republican Party fundraiser in Davenport on Tuesday evening — an early proving ground of his appeal in the Hawkeye State.
Barbour’s counterpart in Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels, passed through Washington over the weekend, cracking some jokes at Obama’s expense at the annual Gridiron dinner (http://abcn.ws/ifF0KI), but in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he sounded downright coy about his presidential ambitions. Choosing his words carefully, Daniels said he “agreed to consider" a presidential bid, but emphasized that he is “committed to the job I'm in now.” Daniels added, “There’s some really good people running. I like them all. I'm hoping that our party will simply step up to the issues of the day, and it could be any one of those folks.” http://on.msnbc.com/gD6Iz2
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Rick Klein and Amy Walter interview Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of a handful of Republicans to vote against a budget extension to avoid a government shutdown who’s known for his strong conservative stances on issues like the budget, immigration and abortion. Also on the show: Jim Tankersley, an economics correspondent from National Journal. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
TOP LINE REPLAY: MICHAEL COHEN. The executive vice president at the Trump Organization and Trump’s special counsel said on “Top Line” on Friday that what the potential GOP field is “lacking right now is really some business sense.” Cohen recently traveled to Iowa where he spoke with a total of 18 political operatives, activists and fundraisers about the possibility of a Trump presidential run. “Every one of them expressed, not just an interest, but a fervent desire to see somebody like Donald Trump join the race in hopes that we can turn this country around because right now we’re really not in good shape,” Cohen said. http://abcn.ws/e2mZJi
BACHMANN RESPONDS TO AMERICAN HISTORY GAFFE. Speaking to school children in New Hampshire over the weekend, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., who is considering a presidential run in 2012, misplaced one of the seminal moments in American history: the the battle of Lexington and Concord and the "shot heard around the world" that began the Revolutionary War. Bachmann told the school kids that it happened in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts. http://bit.ly/frN3uz Bachmann responded to the mistake with a little bit of humor on her Facebook page: “So I misplaced the battles Concord and Lexington by saying they were in New Hampshire. It was my mistake, Massachusetts is where they happened. New Hampshire is where they are still proud of it! … And by the way… That will be the last time I borrow President Obama's teleprompter!” (Video: http://abcn.ws/hSmhJZ)
And Andrew Hemingway, Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, the group to whom Bachmann was speaking gave the congresswoman high marks (and a pass on the gaffe): “Congresswoman Bachmann was received very well by the group of legislators on Saturday which included the speaker of the house Bill Obrien. Her speech was powerful, articulate, and showed a depth of understanding of our countries financial situation second to none,” Hemingway said in a statement. “My group left enthused and excited about the upcoming primary season. She motivated and inspired the audience. More than I have seen from the other potential candidates. Nobody in the audience was troubled by his mistake about NH and mass. It was an obvious slip and was not an indication of her intelligence. She spoke without a script or teleprompter about detailed aspects of the budget as only a financial expert could. Overall the people in NH thought she intelligent, inspiring, and a very real contender.”
NOTED: ABC’s Jonathan Karl points out that reverence for the founders and love of the Constitution defines Bachmann's politics, but this is not the first time she's been mistaken on basic facts of American history. At a speech in Iowa earlier this year, she spoke about how the founders — the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more.”
CONSERVATIVES GROW IMPATIENT WITH BUDGET. “House conservatives have a new object of ire in their war on spending: the short-term spending resolution Republican leaders hope to pass this week,” Politico’s Jake Sherman and Marin Cogan report. “It’s not so much the bill itself as what it represents: the prospect of Republicans spending the rest of the fiscal year squabbling with Democrats on piecemeal spending cuts that neither make a true dent in spending nor show long-term progress in their No. 1 priority. In the House Republican Conference, freshmen and conservatives warn that there must be resolution soon on a budget funding measure that extends through the end of the fiscal year, so that the lawmakers can move on to bigger targets: the fiscal year 2012 budget and the tricky vote on the debt ceiling.” http://politi.co/hTSnR6
REFORM AT THE RNC. “New Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is moving urgently to rebuild the committee into a fundraising powerhouse, trying to position the party to be able to withstand President Barack Obama’s expected $1 billion re-election campaign juggernaut,” Roll Call’s David Drucker reports. “During an interview Friday with Roll Call, Priebus discussed RNC fundraising strategy and goals for 2012 and the challenges he faces in the wake of a near-abandonment of the committee by small, medium and major donors during former Chairman Michael Steele’s administration. Frequently using words such as ‘disaster’ and criticizing Steele’s tenure, Priebus told Roll Call the past two years have ‘completely destroyed’ trust and credibility with major donors.” http://bit.ly/gMwz0W
* Gov. Haley Barbour (R) will visit Chicago, Illinois to address the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.
* Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator, will be in Newton, Massachusetts to deliver a speech at a benefit luncheon for Catholic Citizenship at 11:30 AM. He will later travel to Lewiston, Maine to deliver a keynote address about national security issues at the Young America's Foundation dinner at Bates College.
* Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will be in Alexandria, Louisiana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Destin, Florida; and Biloxi, Mississippi promoting his book "A Simple Government."
* Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and presidential candidate in 2008, will speak at the “Get Motivated!” business seminar in Portland, Oregon.
The Note Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
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