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Obama-Clinton's tag team show

Posted: December 17, 2010 10:38 a.m.
Updated: December 20, 2010 5:00 a.m.

When President Barack Obama turned over his news conference to President Clinton like a tag-team wrestler and left the room to attend a Christmas party -- leaving Clinton to take questions from reporters about Obama's tax-cut deal -- he gave the astonished chattering classes plenty to chatter about:

"Obama's Stunt-Double Presidency," read an Investor's Business Daily headline.

"A Third Clinton Term?" asked a Washington Post headline.

"Clinton Refuses to Leave White House!" joked the disturbingly believable humorist Andy Borowitz.

Yet it soon became apparent that Obama was getting the last laugh. His Friday afternoon surprise with the former president gave visual support to a message conveyed by his pending tax-cut compromise with Republican congressional leaders: This president is triangulating, trying to regain independent swing voters in much the same way that Clinton did after his own midterm setback in 1994.

And who better to deliver that message than Clinton, the great triangulator himself?

At a time when Obama was getting roundly beat up by many of his own supporters for, at best, giving in too soon on his signature issue of limiting tax cuts only to those who make less than $250,000 per year, along came Elvis to reenter the building, bite his lower lip, crank himself up to full empathy and help Obama reach out to the center without losing his liberal Democratic base.

Winning the center with this deal appeared to be easier than holding onto his base. An ABC-Washington Post poll released over the weekend showed an impressive 69 percent of Americans approved the overall tax proposal, far outnumbering the 29 percent opposed. Yet, anger on the left was symbolized by Vermont socialist-independent Sen. Bernie Sanders' eight-hour filibuster to protest the proposed deal's extension of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy -- an event that the Obama-Clinton tag team largely upstaged.

On the other side, most Republican leaders and conservative pundits reacted initially with celebration after winning their core issue of "tax cuts for everyone," including the rich. A notable exception was conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He lamented that Obama clearly won the negotiation, even though "House Democrats don't have a clue that he did," by negotiating what amounted to a historic economic stimulus package of about $850 billion. Had he proposed it directly, Krauthammer said correctly, "he would have been laughed out of town." Clinton in his tag-team appearance described Krauthammer as "a brilliant man," which was the former president's way of saying that Krauthammer finally had said something that Clinton thought Democrats should hear.

Clinton went on, as eager as any other retired person to share his wisdom, for almost a half-hour of answering questions. Obama slipped out of the room after the first 10 minutes, confident that Elvis still would be in the building, staying on message.

The sight of a president calling on a former president to help deliver his message was largely unprecedented, but watching the two share the stage, it was easy to see what Obama can learn from Clinton. For all of Obama's formidable oratorical skills, one is hard pressed to find any living American politician who beats Bill Clinton in the retail skills of political persuasion.

It would be hard to imagine, for example, Clinton casting barbs in public at his own liberal critics as "sanctimonious" and "purists" as Obama did in earlier defenses of his tax deal.

Clinton also learned from experience in his own unsuccessful attempts to pass universal health care that you don't get so wrapped up in policy that you forget the politics of reaching out to the country and thoroughly explaining the policy you're trying to implement, a failing to which Obama confessed in a New York Times Magazine interview before his disastrous midterm election.

As Obama faces a new Congress that replaces many moderate Blue Dog Democrats with new Tea Party Republicans, his triangulation skills will be put to a big test, especially this spring when Congress is expected to face the question of raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Obama's big challenge will be to succeed where he has said in the past that Clinton failed. Triangulation forced Clinton, who came into office pursuing big ideas like health care reform, to begin thinking smaller -- like promoting mandatory school uniforms -- in order to compromise with his opponents. As Obama tries to pick up where Clinton left off, he has a lot to learn from the old master's mistakes as well as his victories.

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