After a week of trumpeting the endorsements of such political heavyweights as the mayors of Kokomo, Charlotte, and Columbus, the White House on Friday finally found someone who mattered to back the president's controversial tax deal with Republicans--former President Clinton, who took to the lectern in the briefing room as if he had never left.
It was vintage Clinton, mixing common-man language with economic theory and off-the-cuff references to speeches given at Choate in 1926. Aw shucks melded easily with the Ivy League, as they so often did during Clinton's often-chaotic but never dull eight years.
Reporters knew that the 42nd president was in the White House to counsel the 44th president. But they had been led to believe that Clinton would slip out without any public comment. Suddenly, there the two presidents were, in the briefing room together after less than five minutes notice to arrange for live coverage by the cable channels.
After he was introduced by President Obama, Clinton spoke while Obama stood by his side. No teleprompters were needed on this day. Clinton spoke without notes, demonstrating by his command of legislative detail and economic indicators that he was no doubt telling the truth when he said he spends about an hour a day studying the U.S. economy.
When Obama fled after saying that he could no longer keep his wife waiting at a Christmas event, Clinton never missed a beat.
He was just getting warmed up--much to the delight of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who was sitting on the sidelines, clearly relishing Clinton's performance and making only halfhearted attempts to cut off the show. It was a performance with political implications, giving Obama much needed cover from a Democrat who's popular with the party base but who also provided the template for the kind of move to the center that Obama is attempting in the wake of his midterm "shellacking."
Recognizing and calling on reporters from "the old days" by name, Clinton made strong cases for both the tax deal and ratification of the New START pact. When Mark Knoller of CBS Radio observed that he seemed to be having more fun coming back this day than he had when he was president, Clinton quickly dissented but then gave an answer suggesting he was relishing some aspects of the visit.
"I had quite a good time governing," he said with a big grin, adding, "I am happy to be here, I suppose, when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me unless they're just ricocheting."
Then he quickly flipped the question from the personal to the point he wanted to make in support of the tax deal.
"No, I'm happy to be here, because I think the president made a good decision and because I want my country to do well. After the 1994 election, I said [that] the American people, in their infinite wisdom, put us in the same boat, so we're going to row or sink. I want us to row."
Almost every political analyst in Washington is drawing analogies between 1994 and 2010 and speculating how Obama can copy Clinton's response to the earlier defeat, but it was left to Clinton to succinctly point out differences.
"There are some parallels, and there are some that are different," he said.
"We played political Kabuki for a year and had two government shutdowns. We can't afford that now. The only reason that we could do that is that the deficit was already coming down in a time when interest rates were the problem and the economy was coming up. People just didn't feel it yet in '94. We have got to hold together and both sides have to eat things they don't like, because we cannot afford to have the impasse we had last time that we had over a long period of time. We don't want to slip back into a recession."
Not content to talk just about the tax deal, the former president also assessed the impact of other tax bills, gave an update on the situation in Haiti, and stumped for the New START pact--complete with a reference to Boris Yeltsin. For a brief period, it was 1999 once again at the White House.
Aamer Madhani contributed contributed to this article.