By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 12:00 AM
If not a transfer of power, the whole show seemed at least a temporary handoff. An embattled president, fresh off an electoral shellacking and struggling to sell a controversial tax deal to members of his own party, turned to a former president who, exactly 16 years ago, was struggling to right his own presidency after a defeat of almost similar magnitude.
President Obama had invited former president Bill Clinton to the White House for a private talk, the details of which neither man chose to describe. But their public appearance will be long remembered. The sight and sound of Clinton going solo in the White House briefing room, as Obama slipped away to a holiday party, was certainly a head-turner on a slow Friday afternoon.
After brief remarks by Obama, Clinton slid behind the lectern as if he'd never left the building. For a time it looked like he might never leave, as he fielded questions from a White House press corps eager to keep him as long as it could. He stroked his chin. He folded his arms and looked pensive. He gesticulated expansively. He was part professor and full politician enjoying the spotlight.
After a few minutes, Obama seemed to conclude that he would be better served by being out of the picture than as a bystander. "I've been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I'm going to take off," he said.
Clinton responded, "Well, I - I don't want to make her mad. Please go."
And with that, Clinton had the stage to himself.
He had delivered his most important message, about the tax deal, right at the top of his remarks. "The agreement taken as a whole is, I believe, the best bipartisan agreement we can reach to help the largest number of Americans and to maximize the chances that the economic recovery will accelerate and create more jobs and to minimize the chances that it will slip back," he said.
He was asked about criticism from other Democrats that Obama had not fought hard enough before making the deal. Has the president, he was asked, damaged both his own political standing and his party's?
Clinton respectfully disagreed. "A lot of them are hurting now and I get it," he said of Democrats on Capitol Hill. "But we had an election," he added a minute later. "The results are what they are. The numbers will only get worse in January, in terms of negotiating."
Now is not the time for macho politics, he warned. "Look, if we had 5 percent growth and unemployment was dropping like a rock, maybe you could have the so- called Mexican standoff and you could say: 'It'll be you, not me, the voters will hold responsible for raising taxes on middle-class people, if they all go down, you know, next year.' That is not the circumstance we face."
Asked whether Americans want to see the president compromise with Republicans, and whether that is the message Obama needs to drive home to his fellow Democrats, Clinton turned the question back on itself. "Yes, but I also believe that it's a message Republicans are going to have to accept. Keep in mind, to me, the really interesting thing was . . . that a lot of the hard-core conservatives think the Republicans gave too much."
For evidence, he cited Friday's column in The Post by Charles Krauthammer, who has regularly excoriated Obama but who wrote that the president got far more out of the deal than Republicans did. Clinton called Krauthammer "a brilliant man."
Obama and Clinton have never had an easy relationship, owing to the scars of the 2008 campaign. Candidate Obama, battling to deny the nomination to Hillary Rodham Clinton, proved he could get under her husband's skin. Bill Clinton took it badly and acted badly, one of the rare moments in his long career when his own considerable political gifts seemed to desert him.
Now, with Obama in trouble, they have become allies. Clinton campaigned this fall in places where the president was not welcome. In the aftermath of the election, and with rebellion in the ranks, Obama needs Clinton's help all the more.
Obama's willingness Friday to hand the stage to Clinton to save the deal he struck with Republicans was a measure of the state in which he finds himself. It was also a sign of confidence that Clinton can help deliver the votes he now needs to get his package through a lame-duck session of Congress.
Obama is a gifted communicator, but Clinton is still Democrats' best synthesizer of policy and political strategy, still the explainer in chief. It is a role he has enjoyed playing for as long as he has been in public life. On Friday he played it with customary gusto, to his and, Obama hopes, the president's benefit.
A policy wonk still, he dived into the details of the economic collapse that caused the deep recession to explain why the deal will do more for the economy than many Democrats believe. He offered a treatise on the private credit markets and summoned up from the back of his brain the fact that Hong Kong had used a payroll tax cut as part of its stimulus package.
With his grasp of economics enhanced by what he said was an hour a day of study (a line he used often on the campaign trail this fall), Clinton outlined the deal struck between Republicans and the White House, as he carefully analyzed the risks to the fragile economy of failing to act.
But he was, as always, keeping his eye on the political ramifications. He prodded congressional Democrats, with none of the defensiveness Obama had shown Tuesday, to set aside their disagreements with some of the elements of the agreement for the sake of the country and the stability of the economy.
There are plenty of fights worth having later, he said, over GOP efforts to repeal health care or roll back reforms of student loans and the financial regulatory system. "But first, the economy first," he said. "We can't go back into a recession. We have to keep crawling out of this mess we're in. And this is a good first step."
He went on for more than 20 minutes, happy in his work. The performance recalled an earlier event in the White House: In September 1993, Clinton was launching his drive to win congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact broadly opposed by members of his own party.
He invited three past presidents to help him and when he finished with his presentation, former president George H.W. Bush, less than a year after his defeat at Clinton's hands, stepped to the microphone. "I thought that was a very eloquent statement by President Clinton," he said, "and now I understand why he's inside looking out, and I'm outside looking in."
On Friday, Clinton was the past president back on the inside but still the center of attention and doing what he likes to do best. If Obama succeeds in winning the support he needs from his rebellious Democrats in Congress, he will owe that victory at least in part to Clinton.