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Obama seeks blessing from Pope Francis

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij and Simone Pathe  March 27, 2014 at 9:51 AM EST
President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis at his private library in the Apostolic Palace on March 27, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis at his private library in the Apostolic Palace on March 27, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images

In the Morning Line today:

  • Obama meets with Pope Francis
  • The president’s tough talk for Putin
  • Parties seek to frame the immigration debate
  • 2016 GOP contenders head to Vegas for “Sheldon Primary”
  • Judy Woodruff interviews former President Jimmy Carter

The Morning Line

Obama meets the Pope: President Barack Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis Thursday morning at the Vatican was remarkable for the imagery. Are there two more famous people in the world? The president was all smiles as he greeted the Pope, declaring himself a “great admirer.” Francis led him to a table, where they both sat and talked for about 50 minutes. (They were scheduled to meet for half and hour.) Of course, there’s politics at play here. At home, Mr. Obama is struggling with approval ratings at or near all-time lows. On the other hand, Pope Francis is one of the most popular people in the world, and holds an outsize megaphone on an issue the president is pushing: income inequality. In fact, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Mr. Obama jumped right into it, arguing income inequality is a “moral issue” and that Francis has “great moral authority” to speak to it. “The pope is correct when he says that not enough people are sharing in that progress, and too many people are being left behind,” the president said.

President Obama and Pope Francis do have a lot in common, including that sense of social welfare and economic justice. The president got his start as an activist in Catholic Churches in Chicago, and he’s praised Francis, who Rush Limbaugh accused of being a Marxist. But sharp differences remain, as evidenced by the blind quote in the Sunday New York Times from a senior Vatican official, who seemed to take a shot at Mr. Obama. One cardinal, Raymond Burke, the Vatican’s chief justice and former archbishop of St. Louis, took it further, accusing the president of being “progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies.” The Catholic Church has led the fight against the contraception requirement in the health-care law. Of course, the president is pro-abortion rights. And there’s Obama’s willingness to use military force, like with the use of drones. The irony here is for much of Obama’s first five years, European leaders were the ones clamoring to be near him when they were suffering politically. By the way, President Obama’s also meeting with new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at 9:25 am ET and the two have a joint press conference at 10:35 am ET. Renzi is an emerging international star and has had tough words for the old Italian political guard. As this Vanity Fair cover shows, Silvio Berlusconi he is not.

Obama’s tough talk for Putin: While in Brussels Wednesday the president delivered his strongest rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. But the president also was speaking to an American audience, with a new online AP-GfK poll showing 57 percent of Americans disapproving of the president’s handling of the situation in Ukraine. “Once again, we are confronted with the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way — that recycled maxim that might somehow makes right,” Mr Obama said during an address to European youth. The president also suggested the U.S. and its allies would continue to ramp up pressure on Putin if he takes further aggressive steps. “If the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together we will ensure that this isolation deepens. Sanctions will expand. And the toll on Russia’s economy, as well as its standing in the world, will only increase,” the president added. He also pushed back on criticism that the U.S. should have asserted itself more forcefully in its approach with Russia. “Now is not the time for bluster,” the president cautioned. “The situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers nor a military solution. But at this moment, we must meet the challenge to our ideals — to our very international order — with strength and conviction.” And don’t miss this quote, in which the president seemed to suggest the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not as a bad as what Putin has done in Crimea. “Even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system,” Mr. Obama said. “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain.”

The president’s team is always aware of criticism and has sometimes been accused of being slow to respond. In those instances they often try to find opportunities for Mr. Obama to make a “major” address to use his oratory, which they see as perhaps his biggest strength, to “reframe” the debate. Thursday’s speech by the president is one the administration will point to when it is pressed for answers regarding the strategy going forward in Ukraine, much like Mr. Obama’s December 2011 remarks in Osawatomie framed his economic agenda leading into the 2012 campaign, or how he sought to tackle concerns about NSA surveillance in his address at the Justice Department in January. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the House and Senate continue to work through their differences on a Ukraine aid package, which could come up for a vote as early as Thursday. Asked Wednesday if he saw any problems with reaching a deal, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters: “You never know. But there’s an awful lot of cooperation and discussion under way to try to avoid that.”

Both sides court Hispanics: Immigration reform may not be happening this year, but both parties are still doing what they can to court Hispanic voters, who could play a big role in how this year’s midterm elections and the 2016 presidential campaign shake out. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to address the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday, where he will likely ramp up the pressure on congressional Republicans to move forward with legislation to reform the country’s immigration system. On Wednesday the group heard from two top Republicans, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, who both pledged action on reform at some point. “We think there’s a way to do it. To me, it’s not a question of if we fix our broken immigration laws, it’s really a question of when,” Ryan said. “This is a problem that doesn’t have easy solutions, but Republicans agree that the system is broken, that’s number one,” Priebus said. “Number two, we believe that we have to do something. The only question is how are we going to do it.”

Growing impatient with their GOP colleagues’ failure to move even piecemeal measures, House Democrats on Wednesday filed a discharge petition to force Republican leaders to bring the Senate-passed comprehensive reform bill up for a vote. That measure passed 273 days ago, but despite a solid bipartisan vote failed to gain traction in the GOP-controlled House. The White House released a statement from the president charging that “the only thing standing in the way” of immigration reform “is the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to catch up with the rest of the country.” That show of support follows the president’s decision to order a review of the administration’s deportation policy, which had come under scrutiny from immigration rights advocates. For Democrats, their ability to energize Hispanic voters could determine whether the party is able to maintain its majority in the Senate and avoid falling deeper into the minority in the House.

2014/2016 watch – The ‘Sheldon Primary’: Republicans eyeing the White House arrive in Las Vegas Thursday to bet on their presidential futures. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich will attend the spring leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition — otherwise known as the “Sheldon Primary.”. During scotch tastings and rounds of golf, they’ll try to impress Sheldon Adelson, who dished out $90 million last cycle, and other big GOP donors. And if Adelson has anything to do about it, this won’t be the last time they’re all in Vegas; he’s pushing for his city to host the Republican National Convention. Regardless of who leaves with the big checks, at this point, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Hillary Clinton besting all the big Republican names in Virginia.

As presidential hopefuls hunt for cash, more 2014 candidates are using what’s in their coffers to get on the airwaves. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., unveiled the first television ad in his bid to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin. The 30-second spot highlights Peters’ personal background growing up in “an average Michigan middle-class home.” Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds is also about to go on the air in South Dakota’s Senate contest. And in Iowa, after America Rising PAC released footage of Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley making remarks about Sen. Chuck Grassley not being a lawyer, Republicans are hoping that the Democrat’s gaffe will force him to spend money earlier than he otherwise would have on positive spots. It’s looking more likely, Roll Call reports, Republicans will coalesce around a candidate in the upcoming June primary and avoid what could be a more divisive nominating convention.

Wednesday’s quote of the day: “What the hell is this, a joke?” – House Speaker John Boehner commenting on the administration giving Americans extra time to enroll in health plans.

LINE ITEMS

  • Judy Woodruff sat down with former President Jimmy Carter Wednesday for an in-depth conversation about what he calls the most important book he’s ever written, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power,” as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and his grandson’s bid for governor in Georgia.
  • Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee met with House Republicans on Wednesday, a potential hint at his ambitions for 2016.
  • Former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin endorsed Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst in her bid to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. “If Nebraska’s Deb Fischer can see through the bull in Washington, then Iowa’s Joni Ernst can help her cut through the pork,” Palin wrote on her Facebook page. Ernst released a TV ad Wednesday where she highlights her desire to “cut pork” in Washington by touting her experience “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”
  • A new Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday shows Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker leading Democratic challenger Mary Burke 48 percent to 41 percent. Walker had a six-point advantage in the January survey.
  • First there was Planet Hillary. Now we have Planet Biden.
  • Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake is staging his own version of March Madness dubbed the “Elite Eight of Waste Tournament.”
  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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