By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
ABC's RICK KLEIN: Witness the presidency, with all its exquisite contradictions. President Obama breaks bread with Republican lawmakers, and digs in for battle against the House Budget Committee chairman who joined him for lunch last week. He launches a fresh search for a "grand bargain," but says there will be no "debt crisis" if it isn't achieved. He meets privately with House Republicans today, then meets publicly (and also privately) with his army of partisan backers tonight. It's a complicated job that requires one to play multiple angles. But it's those contradictions that Republicans love to cite in explaining why they can't work with this president. Candidate Obama has a tendency to make his way back toward the spotlight.
ABC's DEVIN DWYER: President Obama today cast blame on the Secret Service for that decision to cancel all White House tours because of sequester, telling George Stephanopoulos that the agency's first priority was to protect agents and their families, who otherwise would have seen a reduction of pay. Never mind that the agency says it was a White House call, Obama told George he's now "asking them" about the possibility of reversing course at least for school groups descending on the capital for spring break. The crack in the door is a welcome sign for one group of 6 th graders in Waverly, Iowa, who today launched a new grassroots campaign: "The White House is OUR HOUSE." They're deploying the same tactics against the White House that President Obama has often tried to leverage against Congress: urging people to call and email, and producing a catchy web video they hope will go viral. http://bit.ly/13VncmM
ABC's GARY LANGER: Eighty-eight percent of Democrats approve of the president's job performance while 87 percent of Republicans disapprove. The partisan gap in approval matches the sharpest of his presidency. To be fair to Obama, it's not uncommon for a second-term president to see some slippage in approval after his second inaugural, as the to-and-fro of politics returns to the fore. That said, he's alongside George W. Bush with a lower-than-usual rating at this point. And as views of Congress also indicate, the country clearly is displeased with current politics. Perhaps more troubling to Obama is the recent trend among independents, often the fulcrum of national politics: His approval rating in this group has lost 10 points since January, to 44 percent.
ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: Mitch McConnell will run an ad this week in Lexington and Louisville ahead of his re-election contest in Kentucky, which is 20 months away. The ad features McConnell's wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao looking directly at the camera criticizing "far left special interests" for "attacking her ethnicity" and McConnell's "patriotism." The backstory here is that a group called Progress Kentucky (a super PAC focused on defeating McConnell) posted tweets last month highlighting Chao's Chinese descent. After criticism from both sides of the aisle, they apologized and deleted the tweets. The six figure buy will be up for a week. Campaign manager Jesse Benton predicts that "liberal special interest groups across country are sure to try every dirty trick in the book to tear him down, but our campaign will fight as hard as Mitch fights for us." But, in an interview with ABC News Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. said the ads show that "clearly Mitch knows that he is in very deep water with women in Kentucky." Yarmuth is also Ashley Judd's most vocal supporter in the state and he says "everything" McConnell "has done over the last month or so has indicated that he's panicked about an Ashley Judd candidacy." So will she get in? "Everything that I've seen her do and the things that she's said to me indicates to me that she is going to make a race," Yarmuth said. WATCH: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_3B697UwNM
CUP OF JOE: ABC's Arlette Saenz notes that Vice President Joe Biden made a secret stop at the Alexandria Police Department in Virginia last Friday to show his support for Officer Peter Laboy, who was shot in the head last month while performing a routine traffic stop. Biden visited with Laboy's unit and signed a "Get Well Soon!" poster for the officer who is still recovering, according to the Alexandria Police Department's Facebook page. He also came bearing gifts - fittingly carrying two Dunkin' Donuts "Box O' Joe" coffee cartons for the officers. http://on.fb.me/ZJzDys
VIDEO OF THE DAY
LANNY DAVIS'S ADVICE TO SEN. MENENDEZ. Crisis management expert Lanny Davis, famous for advising former President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, has some advice for public figures who find themselves wrapped up in a scandal: "Tell it all, tell it yourself, tell it quickly." Davis, whose new book "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crisis in Business, Politics, and Life" hits bookshelves today, says one of the biggest mistakes that people and corporations make in dealing with public relations crises is to try and hide ugly truths. "While the instinct is hide the bad facts, what I'm advising is, the worse the facts are, the earlier you should put them out yourself, get them out, and then address them yourself," says Davis, who points to the ongoing scandal facing Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as a present case study for the need to come out with the whole truth early. Watch the latest installment of "Top Line" hosted by ABC's Rick Klein and Yahoo's Olivier Knox: http://yhoo.it/YmCr3f
OBAMA: GAP BETWEEN PARTIES MAY BE 'TOO WIDE' FOR A GRAND BARGAIN . Before meetings with GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate today and Thursday, President Obama signaled pessimism about the prospect of reaching a grand bargain in the ongoing budget negotiations. He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview that there is not an "immediate debt" crisis and that, ultimately, there might just be too much space between the two parties to reach a deal. "Ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide. It may be that, ideologically, if their position is, 'We can't do any revenue,' or, 'We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,' if that's the position, then we're probably not going to be able to get a deal," the president told me. "That won't … create a crisis," he said. "It just means that we will have missed an opportunity. I think that opportunity is there and I'm going to make sure that they know that I'm prepared to work with them. But, ultimately, it may be better if some Democratic and Republican Senators work together." http://abcn.ws/ZJqOon
More from George Stephanopoulos' interview with President Obama:
ON NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR AMBITIONS: Stephanopoulos asked the president whether he believed North Korea could now make good on its threats of nuclear action against South Korea and the United States. "They probably can't, but we don't like margin of error," he began. But when pressed on whether it was really that close, the president rephrased his response. "It's not that close. But what is true is … they've had nuclear weapons since well before I came into office. What's also true is missile technology improves and their missile technology has improved," he said. "Now, what we've done is we've made sure that we've got defensive measures to prevent any attacks on the homeland. And we're not anticipating any of that. But we've seen out of the North Koreans is they go through these periodic spasms of … provocative behavior."
ON THE NEXT POPE: Turning across the Atlantic to the papal conclave happening this week, President Obama rejected the notion held by some cardinals that a U.S. pope would be too closely aligned with the U.S. government, an argument frequently used against U.S. cardinals who might be considered contenders for the papacy. "I guarantee you … the conference of Catholic bishops here in the United States don't seem to be taking orders from me," he said.
ON RESTORING SOME WHITE HOUSE TOURS: "What I'm asking them is are there ways, for example, for us to accommodate school groups … who may have traveled here with some bake sales. Can we make sure that - kids, potentially, can … still come to tour?" he said. "But… I'm always amused when people on the one hand say, the sequester doesn't mean anything and the administration's exaggerating its effects; and then whatever the specific effects are, they yell and scream and say, 'Why are you doing that?'" he said. "Well, there are consequences to Congress not having come up with a more sensible way to reduce the deficit."
MORE ON THE TOURS: ABC's Devin Dwyer reports that Obama's comments suggested, contrary to previous statements by the administration, that the decision to scrap the tours fell solely to the Secret Service. "I have to say this was not a decision that went up to the White House," Obama said in the interview. "But what the Secret Service explained to us was that they're going to have to furlough some folks. "The question for them is, you know, how deeply do they have to furlough their staff and is it worth it to make sure that we've got White House tours that means that you got a whole bunch of families who are depending on a paycheck, who suddenly are seeing a 5 percent or 10 percent reduction in their pay," he said. An administration official, seeking to clarify the president's remarks, stressed that the decision to cancel the tours never came to the Oval Office, falling personally to Obama, but that it was ultimately made by White House staff. http://abcn.ws/Yatc43
Full transcript: President Obama's Exclusive Interview With George Stephanopoulos: http://abcn.ws/W9KoKE
ON THE PRESIDENT'S AGENDA: President Obama meets with the House Republican Conference on Capitol Hill this afternoon. ABC's Mary Bruce notes that for those keeping score, today marks the fourth time the president has sat down with the House GOP. They last met at the White House in June 2011. Afterward, Obama meets with CEOs in the Situation Room to discuss cybersecurity. Later, he sits down with business leaders to discuss his proposals for immigration reform, closed press. This evening, Obama delivers remarks and answer questions at the Organizing for Action Founders summit in Washington, DC.
TOWNS CONSIDER MANDATORY GUN OWNERSHIP IN HOMES. Should every homeowner in America be required to own a firearm? ABC's Arlette Saenz reports that a few towns across the country have considered measures to determine just that. On Monday night, voters in the small town of Byron, Maine, home to about 150 people, struck down a proposal that would require all homeowners to own a gun. The proposed article said, "Shall the town require all households to have firearms and ammunition to protect its citizens?" Over 50 voters gathered at the town's annual meeting and voted nearly unanimously against the proposal. In Nelson, Ga., a town about 50 miles north of Atlanta, the town council gave initial approval last week to a similar ordinance, which includes exceptions for convicted felons, the physically disabled, mentally ill, conscientious objectors, and people who the council describes as "paupers." While these measures have sprung up in a few towns since Congress has started considering new gun proposals in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, one town enacted such a rule over 30 years ago. In 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Ga., passed an ordinance requiring "every head of household to maintain a firearm together with ammunition." Kennesaw acted in response to a law passed in Morton Grove, Ill., which banned guns in its city limits. Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, said that such measures would be of "doubtful constitutionality." "Although Congress in the 1790s required all able-bodied men to purchase and keep a firearm for militia purposes, state or local laws forcing every homeowner to own a gun would be of doubtful constitutionality today," Tribe told ABC News. http://abcn.ws/ZHKffd
WHY HAVE SO MANY STATES BANNED ABORTIONS? Abortions are becoming illegal in America at a rapid clip, notes ABC's Chris Good. Last week, Arkansas passed the nation's most restrictive abortion law, enraging abortion-rights supporters and sparking plans for a court challenge. But that law followed a wave of legislation in the last three years: Since 2010, 10 states have passed outright bans on abortions for women who have been pregnant for more than 20 weeks, and in some cases earlier. Abortion-rights activists are worried about a ban under consideration in North Dakota, plus a continuing wave of regulations on abortion clinics that, activists say, have forced clinics to close by making it impossible for them to operate. These new curbs come four decades after the nation's landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion was decided. Why is that? The short answer is that during the last two elections - big years in national politics, marked by a wave of Tea-Party House and Senate gains in 2010, and by President Obama's reelection over Mitt Romney in 2012 - Republicans have taken over more state legislatures and governors' mansions across the country, turning some red states redder and flipping some purple states into their column. It's not that abortion bills are new, according to activists on both sides of the issue: It's that GOP gains in state politics have cleared the way for pro-lifers to advance their agenda. http://abcn.ws/W5mmQV
SANTORUM FOR PRESIDENT, AGAIN. No, not that one. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum's eldest son John is taking up the family business and running for president of the Citadel, where he is a student. ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports that according to a "Santorum for Class of 2016 President" Facebook page, the veracity of which was confirmed with a Rick Santorum aide, the younger Santorum is indeed running. His slogan? "Help Me Finish What My Dad Couldn't." The page shows the freshman at the Charleston, S.C. military academy standing next to his father with the tongue in cheek slogan as well as a photo of Santorum shooting an assault rifle with the words "I love America & I Love Guns" written across the image. He also touts his "A+" rating from the NRA. The platform seems a lot like his father's and John Santorum's graduation will be the same year his father is back in the election year spotlight if he decides to make a second run for the presidency. John Santorum was a constant presence on the campaign trail with his father, along with his sister Elizabeth. They both took time off of college to help their father's campaign, stumping alongside him all over the early states, especially the first caucus state of Iowa. http://abcn.ws/ZGOjfv
@jdickerson: I know there's some debate about this, but the First Vatican Council did in fact prohibit papal conclave jokes on Twitter.