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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Clinton steals show from Obama at White House, who's in charge?

WASHINGTON -- Bubba's back in charge!

President Obama brought Bill Clinton to the White House yesterday to drum up support for his tax-cut deal with Republicans. But it seemed like it was 1995 in the Briefing Room.

After making brief remarks in a joint appearance following their private meeting, Obama graciously ceded the microphone to Clinton.

Clinton grabbed it and proceeded to hold court for the next 30 minutes in a dominating performance, leaving Obama looking like a bystander, instead of the leader of the free world.



EXIT, STAGE LEFT: President Obama has apparently had enough of Bill Clinton’s scene-stealing performance at the White House’s press room yesterday and walks out. The engaging ex-president held court for a half-hour.



"I'm going to let him speak very briefly," Obama said, saying he had to go to "just one more Christmas party" -- and then looked on in silence as his Democratic predecessor expounded on a series of subjects.

Obama then literally looked at his watch and then left, leaving Clinton to soliloquize about taxes, Haiti, interest rates and community banking.

Clinton actually fielded over a dozen questions from the press corps.

"First of all, I feel awkward being here, and now you're gonna leave me all by myself," Clinton joked at the outset, as the pair surprised reporters in the room Clinton once commanded.

Clinton then lauded the tax deal as "the best bipartisan agreement we can reach," and sprinkled in deft lines that bested those dreamed up by Obama's speechwriters to sell the plan.

"I don't believe they can get a better deal by waiting," Clinton said of the deal.

When a reporter asked Clinton a question about what advice he offered Obama in the private White House meeting, he kicked it over to Obama.

But the president seized the moment to escape.

"Here's what I'll say. I've been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour. So I'm going to take off," Obama said while Clinton was in mid-sentence.

"I don't want to make her mad, so please go," quipped Clinton.

Mindful of Clinton's ability to talk and talk, Obama concluded, "You're in good hands. And [Press Secretary Robert] Gibbs will call last question" -- DC parlance for giving a speaker the hook.

Gibbs did try to cut things off, but Clinton kept fielding questions anyway, taking a total of 13.

Longtime White House observers were stunned as the former president spoke for 30 minutes with the podium to himself on live TV.

By bringing Clinton, Obama risked getting upstaged or looking desperate in his efforts to get his tax deal through.

But the extra assist could build support for the deal and steal attention away from a filibuster being waged against it on the Senate floor by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Reporters wanted to know what Clinton thought of the dissension within the Democratic party over extending the Bush-era tax cuts -- even for those earning more than $250,000 a year.

Clinton expressed empathy with House Democrats, whom he sometimes tormented while in office; but he pitched for bipartisan compromise.

"A lot of 'em are hurting now, and I get it," Clinton said. "We had an election. The results are what they are. The numbers will only get worse in January, in terms of negotiating."

Asked whether Obama had "caved" or would be a one-term president, Clinton said, "I just respectfully disagree about that."

When a reporter remarked that Clinton seemed happier giving advice than when governing, Clinton replied with a twinkle and smile: "Oh, I had quite a good time governing. I am happy to be here, I suppose, when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me -- unless they're just ricocheting."

He stretched credulity on a question about the deficit when he called himself a "depression-era kid." (Clinton was born during the postwar baby boom in 1946).

And he showed his skill at portraying the political center as a sane refuge between extremes.

"The one thing that always happens when you have divided government is that people no longer see principled compromise as weakness," Clinton said.

He said it was "worth fighting" to avoid a Republican repeal of health-care legislation and worth a "ferocious fight" to avoid repealing student loan reforms proposed by Clinton and enacted under Obama.

Earlier in the day, White House aides wouldn't say whether Clinton and Obama would even appear, and the White House didn't make them available for even a photo op beforehand.  12/11/10

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