West Wing Briefing

Bill Clinton content to cheer Obama on

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:15 AM

At a highly unusual news conference more than two weeks ago, President Obama introduced former President Clinton, then left the briefing room to go to a Christmas party while Clinton touted a tax agreement the White House was pushing.

But for most of the last two years, the opposite has happened: Obama has campaigned to enact goals Clinton failed to achieve.

On Wednesday morning, Obama signed into law a repeal of the ban on people who are openly gay from serving in the military - a ban that Clinton tried to get rid of in the early 1990's before settling on "don't ask, don' tell'" as a compromise.

In the afternoon, the Senate is likely to give final approval to a major nuclear weapons treaty with Russia that the Clinton administration unsuccessfully pursued more than 10 years ago.

And most famously, Obama earlier this year signed a massive health care expansion that had eluded his Democratic predecessor.

These policies and priorities are of course not unique to either man; most Democratic presidents would likely have pushed them. And their successful passage during Obama's second year in office has as much to do with timing as either president's legislative skill.

Support for gay rights, for example, has increased dramatically since Clinton tried to change the military's policy on gays almost two decades ago. Many of the people who helped push Obama's health-care law through Congress, such as then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, personally participated in and learned from the 1993-94 experience.

The former president does not sound envious when he talks about his successor's achievements. Tensions from the 2008 campaign have cooled, as the two have praised each other publicly and Obama has sought the advice of both Clinton and his wife, the highly regarded Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I was in the Oval Office talking to the president about a number of things," Bill Clinton said in an interview last week on Larry King Live, recalling his meeting with Obama earlier this month.

"I said, 'would you like me to call some Democrats in the House?' He said no, I want you to go the briefing room and tell the press. I said 'well, I'm out of practice.' He said, you'll be fine, it's like riding a bicycle."

"So he dragged me in there and the rest is history," said Clinton.

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