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Jeff Jacoby and Joan Vennochi on Obama's Bill Clinton moment

Posted by Jesse Singal  December 13, 2010 03:12 PM

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obamaclinton.JPGJeff: Obama could learn from Clinton

President Obama clearly didn’t know what he was unleashing when he invited former President Bill Clinton to join him in the White House briefing room and “share some of his thoughts” on taxes and the economy. “I’m going to let him speak very briefly,” Obama said as he turned the microphone over to Clinton.

Very briefly? It would have taken the Jaws of Life to wrest Clinton from that podium once he started talking. Obama didn’t even try. After the former president passed the 11-minute mark, the president simply excused himself — “I’ve been keeping the First Lady waiting for about half an hour, so I’m going to take off” — and left. Clinton, unfazed, kept right on pontificating.

Well, it’s been 10 years since #42 left the White House, and maybe #44 forgot that his predecessor has a tendency to suck all the oxygen out of a room once he starts talking.

But Obama also seems to have forgotten how much of Clinton’s success was due to his ability to “triangulate” — to achieve workable results that might not satisfy ideologues on the Republican right and Democratic left, but that a plurality of voters in the broad mainstream could support. Clinton’s compromises on welfare reform and budget-balancing were classic examples of triangulation, and part of what made them possible was Clinton’s ability to argue with (apparent) sincerity that they were policies he wholeheartedly embraced — policies that drew on the best ideas of right and left without tilting toward either extreme.

Obama could take a page from Clinton’s triangulation playbook and make an upbeat centrist’s argument for his proposed tax compromise. But he hasn’t. Instead he has angrily rebuked his fellow liberals for their “sanctimony” in opposing the deal, while seething that Republicans forced him to do it by being “hostage takers” addicted to their “holy grail” of “tax cuts for the wealthy.” That’s not a very good way to convince anybody of the virtues of a compromise.

Clinton’s sins and flaws were legendary, but say this much for the man: He knew how to find the middle ground and embrace it. It’s a political skill his successor has yet to master.

Joan: Finding the audience that matters

Humorist Andy Borowitz deftly lampooned Bill Clinton's long-winded endorsement of President Obama's tax plan with a piece headlined "Clinton Refuses to Leave White House." In its own way, the reality of their joint appearance was just as bizarrely humorous.

Obama handed off the press conference to Clinton, because he needed to get to a Christmas party and, as he told the former president, he had already kept the First Lady waiting for about a half an hour.

What happened before and after Obama left the stage is a textbook lesson in how to sell a compromise.

Clinton's answers highlight the consummate skill of a great American salesman.

It goes without saying that Clinton never minded keeping his wife waiting for anything; he will always stay and talk as long as people are listening. He is also adept at making the complex simple. And finally, he knows how to look beyond Washington and frame a problem and a solution in a way that connects with the average person. Inside the Beltway, defining Republicans as "hostage-takers" and lambasting liberals as "sanctimonious" — as Obama did — may be taken as a sign of political toughness. Outside the Beltway, it is petty name-calling that does little to advance Obama's agenda.

At his Dec. 7 solo press conference, Obama began by explaining the broad benefits of the tax compromise in the same reasonable way as Clinton did. But he veered off into ungraciousness that may be understandable, given the political pressures of the moment, but is also counter-productive.

It is, of course, easier for Clinton to be magnanimous in compromise than Obama. But the real takeaway of Clinton's performance is that Obama should think, like Clinton does, about the audience that really matters.

That audience is not incoming House Speaker John Boehner nor outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It is the average American citizen who sent Obama to the White House and wants to understand what Obama is doing and believe in it — and, once again, in him.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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