Nancy Pelosi Doesn't Care About Popularity

Conservatives love to hate Nancy Pelosi: for them, she personifies the grasping hand of big government in the Age of Obama. Now, some liberals are disappointed, too—over the troop surge in Afghanistan, and compromises on health care. The House speaker talked to NEWSWEEK's Eleanor Clift about what it's like to be in everyone's sights. Excerpts:

You are seen as this far-out liberal, when you actually are quite traditional in your lifestyle. I feel like the country doesn't really know you.
I don't choose to spend my time countering perceptions and mischaracterizations that the other side puts out there. I choose to do my job. Because we are effective, I continue to be the target.

Speaking of the overall popularity of Congress, it was higher when you were in opposition to a Republican president.
But we weren't the target then.

I think a lot of people thought that once President Obama was elected, we wouldn't see the traditional bargaining and compromising and things taking so long.
Let's say this: the president became president with a nation in crisis—an economic crisis, a budget crisis, two wars, and a climate crisis. People want change, but they are menaced by it; they are cautious about it. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the ratings of Congress. I really don't.

If you look at liberals these days, they are restive, disappointed, and as we speak here today, the president is ready to send more troops to Afghanistan. You've got a health-care bill where the public option may or may not survive, you've got some challenges on the reproductive-rights front.
We'll get those done.

How do you deal with the liberals, your people?
Well, we have a big tent in our party. And I was elected to represent my district and others were elected to represent their districts. [But] I always say, what are the three most important issues facing Congress? Our children, our children, our children. So, if you look at it that way, we are a pretty homogeneous group.

The passage of a health-care bill was a major victory, but it was clouded a bit by the compromise on reproductive rights. [This] was an issue that you and your generation fought for, and a lot of the women serving in Congress remember [that], and they felt betrayed.
There are certain elements, let's not identify them by party, but largely the Republican Party, that wanted to defeat this bill. They were almost giddy with how they were going to take down this bill on the abortion issue. They thought we were stuck. And we said, no we're not. We will deal with it. The legislative process has many steps along the way and we will deal with it.

It was reported that you were negotiating with the conference of bishops.
I talked to one of the cardinals. I said to him that I believe that what we are doing honors the principles we talked about: we want to pass a health-care bill, we want it to be abortion neutral, and we want it to [have] no federal funding [for abortion], which is the law. And we believe that our language does that. They said, "We believe that it does not." I said, let's sit down at the table and our lawyers can compare language. That's what the meeting was about—to make our case. Clearly, the people at that table were not willing to accept what we know to be a fact.

I think you have had some brushes with [church] hierarchy.
I have some concerns about the church's position respecting a woman's right to choose. I have some concerns about the church's position on gay rights. I am a practicing Catholic, although they're probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.

Is it difficult for you to reconcile your faith with the role you have in public life?
You know, I had five children in six years. The day I brought my fifth baby home, that week my daughter turned 6. So I appreciate and value all that they want to talk about in terms of family and the rest. When I speak to my archbishop in San Francisco and his role is to try to change my mind on the subject, well then he is exercising his pastoral duty to me as one of his flock. When they call me on the phone here to talk about, or come to see me about an issue, that's a different story. Then they are advocates, and I am a public official, and I have a different responsibility.

We have had very few high-profile political women. Hillary Clinton is very popular now, but she has had some low moments. Ironically, in the past, she has been the most popular when she shows her vulnerabilities. Do you draw any lessons from that?
Well, I don't care how popular I am. I'm not putting myself out there to run for higher office. I just [want to] make sure that we win the election next year.

And 2010 looks a little problematic.
Oh, no. We will be fine. We have great candidates. I am constantly raising money.

You have zest for this job. You're not beaten down.
I actually take some level of pride in the opponents I have gathered. And it helps with my fundraising. [Laughs.]