If there's one thing Americans love, it is political drama played out in the struggle for power. We see it now in the unfolding turf battle between President Barack Obama and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The fact they are both members of the same political party is irrelevant. Pelosi is captain of her ship. Obama is commander-in-chief of all Americans. Their agendas and priorities oftentimes are not on the same page.
It's a toss-up who needs whom more. Pelosi was architect of the stimulus bill. Obama saved it. Obama offered the budget plan. Pelosi will deliver it in one form or another. The same battles will be fought over energy, the environment and health care and to a lesser extent foreign policy.
Pelosi is the fire-eyed liberal willing to take her hits from all the Republicans in her House. Obama is the more popular pragmatist the Republicans don't dare attack this early in his administration.
It's good reading. And, one of the good readers on the subject was offered Monday by Newsweek.
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 (to Republican proposals on the stimulus plan).
"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... 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..."
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 (the) Rasmussen (Poll), 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 (says) 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.
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."