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Morning Bulletin – Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A roundup of news, schedules, and key stories from CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris:

4903757President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are en route to London as he embarks on his first overseas trip as president and he "hopes to convince European allies that his young administration can improve the global economy and the United States' image," reports the Associated Press' Philip Elliott.

"Obama's eight-day, five-country [England, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Turkey] trip begins early Tuesday, sending him to meet with European leaders who split with the United States over the war in Iraq and the treatment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay under President George W. Bush."

"President Obama faces the first major test of his international leadership skills as he prepares to take off on a challenging five-nation European trip," adds CBS Radio News' Peter Maer.

"The president lands in London Tuesday night, ahead of the crucial G20 economic summit. The president will be making his world stage premier at the London meeting and at a weekend NATO gathering in France and Germany. His most pressing agenda items, the economy and the war in Afghanistan, will dominate the ambitious journey. The London summit will perhaps be the most important gathering since the Cold War era when U.S. and Soviet leaders negotiated arms control agreements. This time, instead of the nuclear balance, the world's economic fate will be on the line."

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
"The crowds lining the street for Obama's motorcade may be larger and the diplomatic niceties more heartfelt as he appears in five countries for the G-20, NATO and European Union summits, but a change in American presidents hasn't wiped away differences on some of the pivotal economic and military issues of the day," writes the Politico's Jonathan Martin.

"The topics that may pose challenges to Obama on his first major trip abroad as president include: Stimulus vs. more regulation: Obama persuaded Congress to support a $787 billion stimulus package to jump-start the U.S. economy — but his push to get European governments to do the same is running into serious resistance ahead of the G-20 economic summit in London. EU stalwarts Spain, Germany and France all have indicated their opposition to pumping more government cash into their economies. ...

"Afghanistan: Obama will argue for greater international involvement in Afghanistan, reminding his fellow leaders that the U.S. has rolled out a new strategy that involves sending 21,000 more troops and is now focused on the right war, instead of Iraq, as the Bush administration was. ...

"Russia: The Obama administration has made a show of its desire to start anew with Moscow, but it's uncertain if the feeling is mutual."

The Washington Post's Dan Balz asks: "Can President Obama lead the world? That may overstate the ambitions Obama will take with him to Europe today for a week-long series of summits and speeches. But it is the question that will shadow him throughout his trip and is likely to become the basis for judging the outcome upon his return. ... As a leader, Obama is significantly more popular overseas than Bush ever was. The question is whether Obama has a strategy in mind to leverage that popularity to bend recalcitrant allies in directions he would like them to go, whether that means producing a coordinated response to the international economic crisis or winning concrete support for his new policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan."

As for Michelle Obama, "All eyes and cameras follow first lady to Europe," reports USA Today's Maria Puente.

(AP/The White House)
"Buoyed by positive reviews at home, the first lady embarks today with her husband on their first overseas trip, virtually certain to attract as much klieg-light attention as President Obama on a five-day visit to Europe. What will she do, whom will she meet, what will she wear? When she accompanies her husband to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday, will she be — gasp! — sleeveless?

"And speaking of the money shot, imagine the roar of firing camera shutters when tall, chic ex-lawyer Michelle meets tall, chic ex-model Carla — that is, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, first lady of France. Galaxies colliding indeed. But don't expect Obama to branch out on her own, make policy statements or be provocative. Her role on this trip, says her press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, will conform to traditional first lady parameters. She will join her husband at his events, going solo only twice, and won't give interviews. She will listen raptly to his speeches, charm the locals at glittery dinners and visit first lady-type places (an opera house, cancer clinic, girls' school, hospital, a cathedral) with her counterparts in Britain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic."

PRESIDENT'S UPCOMING SCHEDULE: The Obamas land in London at around 8 p.m. British time tonight and they'll visit with Embassy staff before retiring for the day. Tomorrow morning, the Obamas have breakfast with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah at 10 Downing St. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Brown then head to a cancer center to visit patients; the president and the prime minister hold a press conference.

President Obama will then meet individually with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, U.K. Conservative Leader David Cameron, Chinese President Hu Jintao and, then, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, where, following the meeting with the queen, President Obama will attend a reception with the other G-20 leaders.

(AP)
BUDGET: "President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Monday evening to bolster House Democrats as Congress began a politically charged budget debate that will determine the president's ability to pursue his broad domestic policy agenda," reports the NY Times' Carl Hulse.

"In a private session with lawmakers, Mr. Obama urged them to remain united behind the House's $3.5 trillion spending plan, saying its approval would provide momentum for more difficult fights to come over major policy changes he has promised. ...

"Mr. Obama said that he intended to keep pressing to reduce the red ink and that the spending would help prompt the growth needed to turn the economy around. According to one account, he said he was 'as serious as a heart attack' about lowering the deficit. He told the Democrats that their collective political standing and their ability to execute an aggressive agenda depended on remaining united."

Meantime, the Hill's Jared Allen reports, "On the eve of the budget debate, a number of factions within the Democratic caucus are grappling with whether to propose alternatives to the plan endorsed by President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). ...

"As of Monday afternoon, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was mulling weather to introduce an alternative to the one that was approved along party lines by the Budget Committee last week. ...

"The CBC has introduced alternative budgets in the past, but they have been designed to highlight the difference in priorities between its caucus and the Bush White House. Now that a former CBC member is in the White House, the decision to move forward is politically more difficult. Even if most CBC members ultimately support the Pelosi-backed measure, a separate vote on a CBC plan would be seen at least as a mild rebuke to the president.

"On the other side of the caucus, the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who reacted generally favorably to both the White House's budget and the one marked up by Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), are also debating their next move. The Blue Dogs are not weighing how to make their objections known to the reconciliation instructions in the House measure that would allow controversial bills, such as healthcare reform, to pass the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the traditional 60. ...

"House Republican leaders were still finishing the details of their alternative budget on Monday. Meanwhile, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) are still working on an alternative to the GOP leadership plan."

(CBS)
AUTO BAILOUT: "President Barack Obama has placed a big political wager on his ability to pull off a radical remake of the U.S. auto industry," write the Wall Street Journal's Neil King Jr. and Joseph B. White.

"The risks he faces are myriad, including a backlash from his union faithful and from voters worried that he may be taking too strong a role in deciding the fate of private companies. Mr. Obama's tough actions on General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC are also drawing critical comparisons to his more cautious approach to the problems of big, sick banks and insurance companies. Mr. Obama demanded the ouster of GM's CEO, Rick Wagoner, just three days after hosting a gathering of bankers at the White House, and seeking their help with his financial rescue plan. ... Mr. Obama won office in part due to support from auto workers in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. But his plan, which calls for shrinking the country's No. 1 and No. 3 car makers and reducing workers' wages, could reverberate badly in those states, especially if it strips these workers of retirement benefits to which they feel entitled. ... "

"In essentially taking command of General Motors and telling Chrysler to merge with a foreign competitor or cease to exist, Mr. Obama was saying that economic conditions were sufficiently dire to justify a new level of government involvement in the management of corporate America," adds the NY Times' David E. Sanger.

"His message amounted to an inversion of the relationship that had helped define the rise of American manufacturing might in the 20th century; now, Mr. Obama seemed to be saying, what is good for America will have to be good enough for General Motors.

"In the past, the United States government had briefly nationalized steel makers and tried to run the railroads, with little success. In the last nine months it has taken control of the American International Group insurance firm and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, firing their management as well, at a cost that dwarfs what is unfolding in Detroit. But directing the fate of a vast manufacturing company, one that still looms over the Midwest, is an entirely different kind of enterprise. And at a time when economists are debating the merits of nationalizing sick banks and pouring more taxpayer money into the economy, it raised the question of whether deteriorating circumstances were leading the administration down a path to deeper intervention in the private sector."

"The notion that it was the president, not car company executives, who would pick such a course drew immediate criticism, especially from conservatives," report the LA Times' Peter Wallsten and Jim Tankersley.

"'When did the president become an expert in strategic corporate management?' said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. 'The federal government is famous for its mismanagement, yet this administration continues to demonstrate its certainty that Washington always knows best.' Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, called it a 'power grab' that 'should send a chill through those who believe in free enterprise.' And Rush Limbaugh declared in his daily radio broadcast, 'There's always been a line, ladies and gentlemen, over which no president would cross with respect to the distinction between the public and private sectors. Obama has now crossed that line where there is no limit to government's destruction of private activity or control over it.'"

(AP Photo/Tim Roske)
NY-20: Today, voters in New York's 20th Congressional district vote to fill the seat left vacant when Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand was tapped to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate.

"Republican Jim Tedisco, a state legislator for 27 years, faces Democrat Scott Murphy, a businessman who has the backing of the president and influential unions. ... The contest quickly became about issues far beyond the sprawling, mostly rural district, which stretches along the Hudson River valley from just north of the New York City suburbs to just below the Canadian border," writes the Associated Press' Valerie Bauman.

"Voters will flip levers for Murphy and Tedisco, but national leaders will see a judgment on a president, his plan to save the economy and the strength of the country's two dominant political parties."

"The results will have little effect on the 435-member House of Representatives, where Democrats have a 76-seat majority, but experts say the election may have national repercussions," adds Reuters' Michelle Nichols.

"'This can be viewed as a referendum on how Barack Obama is handling the economy,' David King, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, told Reuters. 'It's national issues that are animating voters.' High turnout for the election would be between 22 and 24 percent of the 654,000 voters, he said."

"Last week, Obama sent out an e-mail message to supporters endorsing Murphy and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. recorded a radio ad for the campaign," reports CQ Politics' Emily Cadei.

"The Murphy campaign circulated a get-out-the-vote-mailer touting Obama's endorsement over the weekend. The Democratic National Committee also spent $10,000 on an ad buy late last week that reiterated Obama's support for Murphy. Republicans are hitting back via the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has outspent the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $818,000 to $592,000, according to the latest disclosure forms filed with the Federal Election Commission. And Steele transferred $200,000 from the RNC to the New York Republican Party for help with the election.

"Outside groups supporting Tedisco, meanwhile, have dumped close to $1 million in independent expenditures into the race, more than half the $432,000 Democratic-leaning groups have spent in Murphy's behalf. Leading the way among all independent groups is the conservative National Republican Trust PAC, which has recorded $780,000 in spending thus far."

(AP)
ALSO TODAY: The Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee holds a confirmation hearing for Health and Human Services Secretary Nominee Kathleen Sebelius at 10 a.m. ET and there aren't any fireworks expected. On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee will also hold a confirmation hearing for Sebelius and that committee's chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tells the Associated Press, "'I don't see any show-stopper issues on the horizon.'

"... Wyden said he expects Sebelius to face questions about her views on abortion. Anti-abortion groups are strongly opposed to Sebelius, a Roman Catholic who supports abortion rights. She vetoed several bills in Kansas to impose new restrictions on abortion providers or regulations on clinics. Just Friday, though, she signed legislation that ensures that women and girls seeking abortions are allowed to see ultrasound images or hear their fetus' heartbeat before the procedure. 'My sense is she has strong personal views, but has worked hard to make abortion as rare as possible,' said Wyden."

AUTOMAKER BAILOUT

Wall Street Journal's Monica Langley and Neal E. Boudette, "Detroit's Fate Sealed in West Wing"

NY Times' David Brooks, "Car Dealer in Chief"

Wall Street Journal's Matthew Dolan, "Blame Is Put on Management, but More Pain Looms for Hourly Workers, Retirees"

CBSNews.com's Brian Montopoli, "Auto Dealers Fight To Stay On The Map"

FINANCIAL INDUSTRY BAILOUT

Washington Post's Tomoeh Murakami Tse, "Hard Line on Auto Aid Puts Bailed-Out Firms on Notice"

Bloomberg News' Hugh Son, "AIG Workers' Compensation Rates Probed by 50 State Regulators"

Bloomberg News' Craig Torres and Lizzie O'Leary, "Fed Takes Lead Role in Executing 'Stress Tests' of U.S. Banks"

BUDGET

Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr., "Ex-Commerce Nominee Now Top Budget Critic"

FOREIGN POLICY

Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon, "U.S. Drops 'War on Terror' Phrase, Clinton Says"

Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, "Clinton Calls Years of Afghan Aid 'Heartbreaking' in Their Futility"

LA Times' Richard Boudreaux, "Israel's Netanyahu says he can work with Obama"

Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman, "Iran, Syria Got Indirect U.S. Nuclear Aid"

OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

Washington Post/ABC News Poll, "Most Americans Don't Blame Obama for Economy"

NY Times' Elisabeth Bumiller, "Gates Securing a Role Under Yet Another President"

Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz, "Locke Vows to Push for 'Fair Trade'"

FUTURE RACES

2009 VA Governor: Richmond Times-Dispatch's Rex Bowman, "Huckabee campaigns with McDonnell in Roanoke"

2009 VA Governor: Washington Post's Anita Kumar, "McAuliffe's Fundraising: High-Dollar, High-Mileage"

2010 CT Senate: Politico's Josh Kraushaar, "Party leaders stressed about Dodd"

2010 IL Senate: Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson, "Giannoulias to decline special interest cash"

2012 Presidential: Associated Press' Glen Johnson, "Romney's work puts him in 2012 political spotlight"

ETC.

NY Daily News' Michael Saul, "I'm not pregnant, Michelle Obama tells Oprah; Barack 'losing his mind' over Sasha's hoop dreams"

Washington Post's Lois Romano, "Michelle's Image: From Off-Putting to Spot-On"

The Hill's Bridget Johnson, "Experts: Obama needs to watch the gaffes"

CBSNews.com's Kevin Hechtkopf, "Obama's Final Four Revisited"

Associated Press' Denise Lavoie, "Obama's aunt becomes symbol in immigration debate"

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