WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bill Clinton basked in the spotlight again at the White House on Friday, holding court with the press and trying to use his popularity to help the current Democratic president pass a controversial tax deal.
Wearing a green tie and clearly enjoying himself, the former president made a surprise visit to the White House press room with President Barack Obama, who spoke briefly, patted Clinton on the back and announced he had to leave for a Christmas party.
“I feel awkward being here and now you’re going to leave me all by myself,” Clinton, not appearing the least bit awkward, said to Obama. Laughter ensued.
The two men, who have not always had a cozy relationship, have a lot in common now.
Like Obama, Clinton grappled with crushing losses to Republicans in congressional elections two years into his presidency. Like Clinton, Obama is reaching out to the opposition party and hopes to win re-election to a second term.
Obama’s ability to pass an $856 billion tax bill may affect that prospect, and Clinton, who was president from 1993 to 2001, did his best to sell it after their sit-down
“I just had a terrific meeting with the former president,” Obama said. “And I thought, given the fact that he presided over as good an economy as we’ve seen in our lifetimes, that it might be useful for him to share some of his thoughts.”
That was Clinton’s opportunity to commandeer the podium.
“In my opinion, this is a good bill, and I hope that my fellow Democrats will support it,” Clinton said.
He admitted that as a high earner himself he would benefit from the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that Democrats, including Obama, dislike. But with an extension of unemployment benefits and a cut in payroll taxes, Clinton said the package was the best bipartisan deal to help the country.
Then, after Obama’s exit, Clinton held forth, calling on reporters he knew from the 1990s by name and commenting about everything from the recent election to Republican efforts to repeal Obama’s signature healthcare reform law.
One reporter observed he seemed happier giving advice than governing.
“Oh, I had quite a good time governing,” Clinton responded, to laughter. “I am happy to be here, I suppose, when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me, unless they’re just ricocheting.”
Clinton was known for his strategy of “triangulation,” which involved showing a willingness to work with Republicans on issues popular with moderate voters like deficit reduction, even when those bipartisan efforts angered his own party.
Some Democrats see Obama’s move on the tax cuts as an example of that strategy.
Obama seems eager to take tips on Clinton’s success. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama requested the meeting.
The two men had strained relations in the past, most notably during the 2008 presidential campaign when Obama and Clinton’s wife, Hillary Clinton, were locked in a close race for the Democratic nomination.
The hard feelings eventually abated, especially after Obama tapped Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state.
The former president noted on Friday he did 133 events to help Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections.
Will his support for the tax plan help garner votes now from skeptical Democrats in the House of Representatives?
“I have no idea,” Clinton said.
To help the process of persuasion, he added: “I think it is enormous relief for America to think that both parties might vote for something, anything that they could both agree on. And there is no way you can have a compromise without having something in the bill that you don’t like.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull;