Saturday, November 6, 2010; A04
Just when President Obama thought he had all the problems he could handle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might have handed him another.
Pelosi stunned many Democrats on Friday with the announcement that she will run for leader of the new Democratic minority in the House. If her colleagues and the smart money in Washington thought she would retreat and resign after the Democrats' 60-seat loss Tuesday, Pelosi reminded them that she didn't become the first female speaker in history through timidity.
The question is whether she has significantly complicated life for Obama as he prepares to deal with the Republican majority in the House and Senate Republicans led by someone who spent the week hurling thunderbolts at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. From outside reports, the White House was conflicted about whether it wanted her to stay or go, torn between loyalty to the speaker for all she did during the past two years and its own political needs in the wake of Tuesday's loss.
Pelosi would be a symbol of resistance and liberal opposition to the Republicans. If Obama wants a House leader who will help draw bright lines of distinction with the new House majority, Pelosi could be exactly the right person to lead House Democrats. If he wants more room to maneuver, to make deals with Republicans as well as confront them, she might not be at all what he wants.
Memories are short in Washington, which is why there was such widespread expectation that Pelosi would resign. Former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down days after his party's embarrassing performance in the 1998 midterms (though the party did not lose its majority). Former Republican speaker J. Dennis Hastert decided not to seek a leadership position after his party lost the majority four years ago and later quit Congress entirely.
For Pelosi, who might have looked further back in the history books, the role model could be Sam Rayburn, the legendary Democratic speaker from Texas. Rayburn's party lost its majority in the 1946 midterms but he stayed on, running successfully for minority leader - although he never liked the term.
Rayburn's persistence was rewarded when Harry S. Truman's 1948 campaign against the "do-nothing" 80th Congress not only resulted in the president's unexpected victory but the election of a Democratic majority in the House to boot.
Pelosi might not believe House Democrats will return to the majority that quickly, but she sounds determined to defend what has happened on her watch.
If Rayburn was one of the strongest speakers in history, Pelosi is the strongest of modern times. Fighting the kind of prejudice that all women in politics face, she emerged as a shrewd, savvy and, above all, tough-minded speaker. Under her leadership, the House passed historic legislation and accumulated a record of significant productivity. Without her political skills, Obama would not be able to count health care as one of his achievements.
The other side of the story is that Pelosi became as polarizing a figure as there was in Washington - much more than Obama. The health-care law has divided the country and come to symbolize Democratic overreach. She pushed House Democrats to pass the cap-and-trade energy bill, and many paid the price.
By Election Day, her image was upside down, with 29 percent viewing her favorably and 58 percent unfavorably. Only among liberal Democrats did her image hold up during the four years she has been speaker. Among all other groups - Republicans, independents, moderate and conservative Democrats - her numbers declined.
Republicans made Pelosi their favorite target in campaign commercials this fall, and Democrats who used her did so to make the point that they would keep their distance and independence if the voters rewarded them with another term. Most of them lost anyway.
That is why Republicans greeted Pelosi's announcement as good news for them and bad news for the president. "If Obama wants to be a one-term president, this is great for him," said John Feehery, a former top aide to Hastert. "Pelosi is going to keep the progressive flames alive and make it a lot harder for him to cut deals with Republicans and move to the center."
A Democrat with wide experience in the House agreed that Pelosi's decision to stay on could cause problems for the president. "The problem for the party and the president is that Obama needs someone in Congress who can help him get things done and reposition himself," this Democrat said. "She will be there to stoke up the left, and that's what he doesn't need."
Pelosi's announcement denies House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer the opportunity to become minority leader, unless he decides to challenge her directly. But he might not even remain as No. 2 in the House leadership, given the announcement by Rep. James Clyburn that he will seek another term as Democratic whip. Hoyer might run for whip also, creating a potentially divisive contest that would split Democrats racially and geographically.
"A Pelosi-Clyburn team, with Steny Hoyer out, would mean a click to the left by a caucus already perceived as too liberal," former Republican representative Vin Weber said. "I don't think this president can triangulate against his base. If this is what happens, it will be the same as stimulus and health care. The progressive Democrats are doubling down once again."
That is a huge risk for Obama, given what the voters seemed to be saying Tuesday. If the vote was not a clear embrace of the Republican agenda, it was at a minimum a call to check the Democrats' impulses to keep enlarging government's cost and reach. With Pelosi still at the helm in the House, voters may wonder what's changed with the Democrats.
There is another view, however. In the minority, Pelosi will have a lower profile. She can concentrate on some of the things she does superbly, including helping to raise money for Democrats for the next election.
She also could be the point person for picking fights with Republicans, relieving Obama of the role of both conciliator and aggressor. If her fights were to gain traction, as House Democrats' did when they went after the GOP's cuts in the growth of Medicare spending in 1995 before the White House signed on, Obama could still reap the political benefits.
That, however, is months into the future. On this first weekend after the Democrats' shellacking, Pelosi still sees herself as the party's leader in the House and, if she wins the job, Obama will have to accommodate to that unexpected reality.