Bill Clinton, back in the White House briefing room

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2010; 7:36 PM

Former president Bill Clinton emerged from a private meeting with President Obama Friday afternoon to endorse the sweeping tax-cut agreement Obama has reached with congressional Republicans, urging other Democrats to support the framework as the two presidents appeared at a highly unusual joint news conference.

"The agreement taken as a whole is I believe the best bipartisan agreement we can reach," Clinton said during the event, carried live on CNN. He added, ""I don't think they can get a better deal" referring to congressional Democrats.

At Obama's request, Clinton - with whom he had bitter relations during the 2008 presidential campaign - came to the White House for an Oval Office meeting. The session lasted an hour and ten minutes. Afterward, White House officials hastily organized a news conference.

Obama introduced Clinton, said that the two had "just had a terrific meeting" and that it might be useful for Clinton to "share some of his thoughts."

"I'm going to let him speak very briefly and then, I've actually got to go over and do some just one more Christmas party," Obama said.

Clinton feigned deference for a moment.

"I feel awkward being here, and now you're going to leave me all by myself?" Clinton said, barely suppressing a smile.

Obama, his arms crossed, stood watching Clinton for a few minutes. Then, as promised, he left.

" I've been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I'm going to take off," Obama said.

"I don't want to make her mad," Clinton said, smiling. "Please go."

"You're in good hands," Obama joked.

With that, Clinton -- looking not the least bit fazed -- settled back into the podium, calling on the handful of reporters who made it to the surprise appearance. The ex-president, nearly a full decade after leaving office, resumed control of the briefing and then spoke more than 20 minutes, repeatedly taking questions even after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said "last question."

He went far beyond discussing the economy, talking also about the work of his non-profit foundation and endorsing the nuclear treaty with Russia known as New START that Obama is trying to get through the Senate.

One reporter asked, "Mr. President, I get the feeling that you're happier to be here commenting and giving advice to governing."

"I had a good time governing," Clinton said. "I am happy to be here, I suppose when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me, unless they're just ricocheting. No, I'm glad to be here because I -- I think the president made a good decision, and because I want my country to do well. "

The joint news conference allowed Obama to promote a high-profile Democratic endorsement of his tax deal but risked potentially unwelcome comparisons between the two presidents, particularly among members of the liberal Democratic base. Liberals who once complained about Clinton's penchant for deal-making with Republicans and, after the 1994 midterms, his move to the political center, could conclude that Obama is on a the same path.

But the White House had clearly calculated that it was worth risking further liberal ire in order to win over the public. And after weeks of speculation about which president's example Obama would follow after his party's midterm "shellacking" - with some guessing he might take the confrontational approach of Harry Truman - it appeared clear which direction Obama intends to go.

And the Republican National Committee criticized Clinton's appearance, sending an e-mail blast to reporters asking "Who is President, Again?"

Clinton largely rejected the comparisons between 1994 and today, arguing that the struggling economy makes the situation much different.

"We played political Kabuki for year, we had two government shutdowns," he said. "We can't afford the kind of impasse that we had last time."

Until Friday, Clinton had not spoken publicly about the tax-cut deal Obama reached this week with congressional Republicans. The agreement would extend George W. Bush administration tax cuts for two years, fund long-term unemployment benefits through 2011 and create major new tax breaks for businesses and individuals to help boost the economy, including a one-year reduction in workers' payroll tax for Social Security.

So many Democratic lawmakers oppose the deal, particularly in the House, that the White House has taken to e-mailing reporters when any Democrat of prominence -- and even some not of prominence -- expresses support for it. On Thursday, the White House noted the endorsement of the mayor of Kokomo, Ind.

"This is a good bill and I hope my fellow Democrats will support it," Clinton said.

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