Then-candidate Barack Obama's audacity was the talk of his campaign and of his first two years in office. With his party in control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, he was able to push through policies that matched his ideals, if not the country's.
But the midterm elections changed everything. Come January, Republicans will control the House and, though Democrats will still control the Senate, their reduced numbers will leave them with less maneuvering room. This new reality has led Obama to compromise with Republicans on a tax bill.
Rather than triangulating, rising above the left and right policy positions, taking credit for rising above the fray and insulating himself from attacks, Obama has managed to both alienate the left and enrage the right. One might argue that the left lives to be alienated and the right to be enraged. But when both sides are unhappy, elections can't be won.
Seemingly on the ropes, Obama called in former President Bill Clinton last Friday for a meeting. This did not at first glance appear to be a bad idea, touching base with the most recent Democratic president whose skills at triangulation are legend. But the private meeting turned into a press conference.
It was surreal. Obama walked up to the pressroom podium wiping his brow. He joked that it was a slow news day, provided background regarding the compromise, then noted, "I have to go over and do some ... just one more Christmas Party." With that, he turned the podium over to Clinton.
"Thank you, Mr. President," Clinton began. "First of all, I feel awkward being here and now you're going to leave me all by myself." He said he felt awkward, but he looked at ease. It was Obama who, standing to the side, looked awkward, unsure.
For the next few minutes, Clinton spoke in favor of the tax compromise. He was earnest, serious, thoughtful and concerned about where we are as a country. I felt that he felt our pain. When asked about the advice he had provided to Obama, Clinton responded that it was given in confidence and he would leave it to Obama to comment.
Obama leaned toward the podium and told the roomful of reporters, "I've been keeping the first lady waiting for about a half an hour, so I'm going to take off, but you're in good hands."
Obama left to go to a party, 11 minutes and 9 seconds into the press conference.
Clinton settled in, placed both elbows on the podium and caught his stride, talking to the press for another 21 minutes. Green tie matching the White House oval behind him, Clinton looked as if he fit in the space better than the current president, who dressed in suit, white shirt and silver tie, looked ready for the party he was attending.
Seeing Clinton behind the podium, passionate and feeling, worried about our country, underscored how different he is from his fellow Democrat. Obama, cerebral and cool, fretted about giving away too much to Republicans and about being late to a Christmas party with his wife.
Clinton showed his grasp of the situation, not with lofty ideas and ideals but with facts and figures: cash in banks, $2 trillion, and on corporate balance sheets, $1.8 trillion. Noting, "It's been since 1964 since they've had that much cash relative to their value."
His argument was that, while not the best option, the compromise "is the best available option." He added, "Everybody's got to give a little."
It's bigger than just this one deal, he continued. "This holds the promise that after the fights are over we'll be able to find principled compromise, and to me it's worth doing."
When people are pressured in new situations, they often lose their way. Several of the Democratic sages Obama might once have counted on are no longer around to provide guidance. Sen. Ted Kennedy, for one.
For the former community organizer who served in the Illinois Senate for six years and the U.S. Senate for two years before announcing his presidential candidacy, this is new territory. While the Democratic Party controlled the House and Senate, Obama's job of governing was easy. But the split government, as Clinton said, is about making deals and making government work.
It's hard work, painstaking work. No one is happy, and every round starts fresh.
The takeaway from the press conference: Clinton still understands our pain; Obama has to go to a party.
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