Bill Clinton and Obama Team up to Push Tax Deal

President Barack Obama looks on as former President Bill Clinton speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 10, 2010. AP

Updated 5:36 p.m. Eastern Time

Former President Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room Friday afternoon to express his support for the tax cut compromise worked out between President Obama and Congressional Republicans.

Mr. Obama stood next to Mr. Clinton while the latter made a statement of support for the $858 billion bill, which is facing strong opposition from House Democrats who object to a two-year extension of tax cuts for the highest earners and the levels at which the estate tax would be set.

The president, who said the two men had come from a "terrific meeting," left the room about ten minutes after Mr. Clinton began taking questions from reporters.

Mr. Clinton said that "the agreement taken as a whole is, I believe, the best bipartisan agreement we can reach." He said Democrats should act now because "I don't believe they can get a better deal by waiting."

He argued that Republicans will have less incentive to accept Democratic demands to extend unemployment insurance benefits and tax breaks for middle- and lower-income Americans once the new Congress starts.

"The numbers will only get worse in January in terms of negotiating," he said. "And the president -- look, if we had 5 percent growth and unemployment was dropping like a rock, maybe you could have the so-called Mexican stand-off and you could say, it will be you not me the voters will hold responsible for raising taxes on middle class people if they all go down next year."

He added, however, that America's shaky economic footing means that's not a risk the president should take.

"The United States has suffered a severe financial collapse," he said. "These things take longer to get over than normal recessions. We must first make sure we keep getting over it. We don't want to slip back down as Japan did."

The former president also referred to the bill as a "stimulus" before adding, "Well, I guess we're not supposed to use that word." His appearance came on the same day that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spent hours on the Senate floor railing against the bill, which he criticized as a giveaway for"millionaires and billionaires who don't need it."

Former President Bill Clinton expresses support for President Obama's tax cuts deal at the White House, December 12, 2010. CBS

Mr. Clinton said he wasn't sure "if I could influence anybody," adding, "All I can tell you is what I think."

He said it would be an "enormous relief" to the American people if the two parties could show they could compromise and agree to pass a bill.

"This holds the promise that after the fights are over we'll be able to find principle compromises" on a range of issues, he said.

He told reporters that both sides had given up something to get to the agreement, noting that members of both parties felt their side had given up too much. 

"So, I think that's healthy, too," he said. "Because everybody's got to give a little. Yes, I think the one thing that has always happens when you have divided government is that people no longer see principle compromise as weakness. This system was set up to promote principle compromise."

Asked what advice he had given Mr. Obama in their meeting, Mr. Clinton said his rule is not to discuss his advice to the president publicly. He said Mr. Obama could make public their discussions if he wanted to do so.

The former president also urged the Senate to ratify the START nuclear treaty with Russia before the lame duck session ends, arguing that "the cooperation that we will get from the Russians and the signal that will be sent to the world on nonproliferation, when all these other things are going on which threaten to increase nuclear proliferation is very important."

At one point, a reporter said to the former president, "I get the feeling that you're happier to be here commenting and giving advice than governing."

"Oh, I had quite a good time governing," Mr. Clinton responded. "I am happier when the bullets are less likely to hit me. I'm happy to be here because I -- I think the president made a good decision and because I want my country to do well and after the '94 election, I said the American people in their wisdom had put us in the same boat. We're going to row or sink and i want us to row."

Obama Recruits Clinton for Tax Deal Pitch

Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.