Politics: Barack Obama's Nancy Pelosi Problem

Charlie Dent wanted to vote for Barack Obama's stimulus package. Obama really wanted Dent to vote for it. Nancy Pelosi? Not so much. Dent is a Republican congressman from Allentown, Pa., an old steel town that was in bad shape even before the recession. Most of the people Dent represents are Democrats who voted for Obama; the GOPcongressman has held on to their support in part by positioning himself as the kind of guy who listens to his conscience, and his constituents, not his party's bosses. Throughout the years, he's irritated GOPleaders by siding with Democrats on issues like stem cells and education funding.

So when the president went looking for Republicans who might be persuaded to back his trillion-dollar economic-rescue package, Dent was at the top of his list. The week after the inauguration, Obama invited Dent, along with his wife and children, to the White House to watch the Super Bowl. A half dozen other Republicans Obama hoped to convert were also there. Over a dinner of hamburgers and hot dogs, the president and first lady put the full Obama charm offensive to work on the Dents. Michelle chatted up Dent's wife. Barack walked around serving hot oatmeal-raisin cookies. Sasha and Malia played Wii with the Dent children. For a journeyman lawmaker like Dent, being fussed over by the president of the United States was a heady experience. "I'll tell you," he says, "it's something you don't forget."

But in the end, it wasn't enough to win Dent's support. Along with every other Republican in the House, he voted no on the stimulus. He thought the plan was too expensive and weighed down with pet projects. But still, he might have been persuaded to go along—if it weren't for Nancy Pelosi.

At the same time Obama was wooing Dent and other Republicans, the House Speaker was going in the opposite direction. Dent says he wanted to talk about some of his concerns, but Democratic leaders ignored him. Pelosi didn't share the president's dream of brotherly love breaking out in the Capitol. She was in charge, this was her bill and she would decide what was in it. To the ire of Republicans, and some Democrats, Pelosi maneuvered to put the stimulus package on an emergency fast track, cutting short debate on the bill and cutting Republicans out of the discussion. "I believe the president was absolutely sincere in looking for a bipartisan outcome," Dent says. "But the White House lost control of the process when the bill was outsourced to Pelosi."

There is always friction between the White House and Congress, even when one party rules both. Obama naturally believes that after winning an arduous campaign, he's earned the right to run the show. But Pelosi worked just as hard to get her job. A sharp-elbowed San Francisco multimillionaire who battled her way to the top of a club still dominated by men, she has no intention of being Obama's gofer. Pelosi, who declined to be interviewed for this story, spent years plotting the Democrats' 2006 comeback. Obama can talk all he wants about "bipartisanship"—her job is to keep the GOP in the minority. Pelosi was dismissive of suggestions that she should have been more solicitous of the other side. "Yes, we wrote this bill," Pelosi said at a press conference. "Yes, we won this election." Then she dialed back her tone. Of course she was interested in bipartisanship, she added quickly. "The president is working hard to get that done."

This tension has left the president and the Speaker with a complicated relationship that hovers somewhere between friend and frenemy. Obama and Pelosi respect, even like, each other. (During his speech before Congress last week, she jumped out of her seat to applause so often that the gossip Web site Gawker dubbed her "Pop-Up Pelosi.") And they need each other politically. But they can still get on each other's nerves. Some White House aides have begun to grumble privately that the president has a Pelosi problem. In some ways, says a senior Obama official, "dealing with Democrats has been tougher than dealing with Republicans." (The official, like other White House and congressional sources quoted in this article, asked not to be named so he could speak candidly.)

Obama and his aides, the official says, were upset over press leaks—which they believe came from Pelosi's office—suggesting Obama was "naive" to reach out to Republicans. Obama gets that Democrats in Congress still harbor resentment over the way GOP leaders treated them when Democrats were in the minority. Pelosi's allies say they wanted to work with Republicans on the stimulus and sought their input last fall. They accuse the GOP of trying to embarrass Obama by voting en masse against the stimulus. No doubt there's truth to that: Republican leader John Boehner muscled his members not to break ranks.

But Obama's campaign was all about putting an end to this kind of petty sniping between the parties. By snubbing Republicans, Pelosi was very publicly undercutting the president. Obama wants that to stop. In recent weeks, the Obama official says, the White House has had "many candid conversations" with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders about the importance of winning over—or at least not openly antagonizing—Republicans.

Yet Pelosi's hard-edged style also benefits Obama. By playing (intentionally or not) the role of the stubborn, old-school ideologue, she allows the president to come off as a reasonable centrist. She pushed to immediately repeal Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy; instead, Obama says he will let them expire on their own next year. Pelosi has repeatedly called for a quick withdrawal of all troops from Iraq. Obama announced last week that, after consulting with the generals, he has decided to slow down the withdrawal and will leave 30,000 to 50,000 noncombat troops in the country indefinitely. Obama has said he wants to stop the tradition of allowing members to insert pork projects into legislation. Pelosi has refused. And despite Obama's insistence that he will "look forward," Pelosi has not shut down efforts in the House to investigate and possibly prosecute former Bush administration officials for abuse of power.

Pelosi has also embraced—even encouraged—her role as Republican enemy No. 1. GOP leaders know better than to go after Obama, whose approval ratings still float around 70 percent. According to Rasmussen, Pelosi is at about 35 percent. "She believes in the president and is willing to take any punches she needs to for him," says a Democratic leadership aide.

But Pelosi isn't taking those shots without getting something in return. In ways that have not always pleased the White House, the Speaker has made it clear to the president that when it comes to House business, he has to go through her. "We are an independent branch of government," she has said repeatedly. Though Pelosi's office denies it, an administration official tells NEWSWEEK that the Speaker asked to be informed whenever the White House contacts a Democratic House member. She also wants to know what the conversation was about. So far the administration is complying. "It's perfectly reasonable," the official says. "She wants to be in the loop."

That task largely falls to Rahm Emanuel, Pelosi's former deputy. Obama is thought to have chosen Emanuel as his chief of staff partly because he was one of the few people in the House who stood up to Pelosi. A Democratic aide says Emanuel got on Pelosi's wrong side during the stimulus debate. In an attempt to win Republican votes, he privately worked with Senate leader Harry Reid to lower the cost of the bill by trimming education funding. When Pelosi found out, she was so angry that Obama himself called to reassure her that Emanuel wasn't making an end run around her. (A Pelosi aide disputes this, saying the Speaker and Obama were scheduled to talk anyway.)

For now, Pelosi may need Obama more than he needs her, but Obama knows he won't always be as popular as he is today, and he will count on her support in the coming budget and health-care fights. At last week's White House fiscal responsibility summit, Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, stood and told Obama that if he really wanted bipartisanship, he would tell Pelosi to have a more "open process."

Obama was probably thinking the same thing, but came to Pelosi's aid. "On the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive," the president said. "On the other hand, the minority has to be constructive." Pelosi was thrilled when she heard later what Obama had said. The Democratic leadership aide says she had begun to feel like the president was hanging her out to dry on the stimulus plan—and now here he was giving her political cover. In Washington, there is no nicer way of saying "let's be friends."