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Learning from the master

When President Obama turned over his news conference to President Bill Clinton like a tag-team wrestler and left the room to attend a Christmas party -- leaving Clinton to take questions from reporters about Obama's tax-cut deal -- he gave the astonished chattering classes plenty to chatter about:

"Obama's Stunt-Double Presidency," read an Investor's Business Daily headline.

"A Third Clinton Term?" asked a Washington Post headline.

"Clinton Refuses to Leave White House!" joked the disturbingly believable humorist Andy Borowitz.

Yet it soon became apparent that Obama was getting the last laugh. His Friday afternoon surprise with the former president gave visual support to a message conveyed by his pending tax-cut compromise with Republican congressional leaders: This president is triangulating, trying to regain independent swing voters in much the same way that Clinton did after his own midterm setback in 1994.

At a time when Obama was getting roundly beat up by many of his own supporters, along came Elvis to re-enter the building, bite his lower lip, crank himself up to full empathy and help Obama reach out to the center without losing his liberal Democratic base.

Winning the center with this deal appeared to be easier than holding onto his base. An ABC-Washington Post poll released over the weekend showed an impressive 69 percent of Americans approved the overall tax proposal, far outnumbering the 29 percent opposed. Yet, anger on the left was symbolized by Vermont socialist-independent Sen. Bernie Sanders' eight-hour filibuster to protest the proposed deal's extension of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy -- an event that the Obama-Clinton tag team largely upstaged.

On the other side, most Republican leaders and conservative pundits reacted initially with celebration after winning their core issue of "tax cuts for everyone," including the rich. A notable exception was conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He lamented that Obama clearly won the negotiation, even though "House Democrats don't have a clue that he did," by negotiating what amounted to a historic economic stimulus package of about $850 billion. Had he proposed it directly, Krauthammer said correctly, "he would have been laughed out of town." Clinton in his tag-team appearance described Krauthammer as "a brilliant man," which was the former president's way of saying that Krauthammer finally had said something that Clinton thought Democrats should hear.

The sight of a president calling on a former president to help deliver his message was largely unprecedented, but watching the two share the stage, it was easy to see what Obama can learn from Clinton. For all of Obama's formidable oratorical skills, one is hard pressed to find any living American politician who beats Bill Clinton in the skills of political persuasion.

As Obama faces a new Congress that replaces many moderate blue dog Democrats with new tea party Republicans, his triangulation skills will be put to a big test, especially this spring when Congress is expected to face the question of raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Obama's big challenge will be to succeed where he has said in the past that Clinton failed. Triangulation forced Clinton, who came into office pursuing big ideas like health care reform, to begin thinking smaller -- like promoting mandatory school uniforms -- in order to compromise with his opponents. As Obama tries to pick up where Clinton left off, he has a lot to learn from the old master's mistakes as well as his victories.

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