Nancy Pelosi was aggrieved.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner cut her out of talks aimed at averting a government shutdown. When they struck a deal, she was more than 400 miles away, giving a speech in Massachusetts.
Then on Thursday morning, when the Associated Press’ Andy Taylor asked Pelosi how she would vote on the compromise, she was still fuming. “As was pretty evident, the House Democrats were not a part of that agreement,” she said, disputing the very term “deal.” “I’d rather call it an agreement than a deal,” she went on, adding, “I feel no ownership of that or any responsibility to it.”
A few hours later, Pelosi walked onto the House floor and, along with more than half of her Democratic colleagues, voted against the compromise, which passed anyway.
It was a stark indication of just how far Obama has moved from the former House speaker who largely defined his first two years in office. Then, she was his rudder, and she kept his presidency on a reliably liberal course. Virtually every important piece of legislation — the stimulus, the health care bill, financial regulations — was negotiated at the conference table in her second-floor office in the Capitol.
Now Obama is, in a sense, rudderless. He has no use for Pelosi, who, made radioactive by the Republicans in 2010, is minority leader in a chamber that consigns the minority to irrelevance. To the extent that Republicans bargain with Democrats, they do it with Pelosi’s understudy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Rarely visible in Washington, Pelosi has gone where she is still appreciated: speaking to Democratic faithful at 86 events across the country in the first 90 days of the year, in addition to the congressional trip to Afghanistan and Italy that briefly landed her ill in a Rome hospital. At her session with reporters this week, the usually put-together Pelosi appeared wan.
Obama, without Pelosi charting his leftward course, has drifted to where he appears to feel most comfortable: in the middle, splitting differences. Depending on where you stand, that may be a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s hard to quarrel with the politics of it. Liberals howled about Obama’s spending deals with Republicans in December and again this month, but the latest CNN poll finds that 58 percent approve of the deal to avoid the shutdown and, by 48 percent to 35 percent, Obama and the Democrats are getting the credit. Obama perhaps has calculated that the way to appeal to independent voters is to position himself above the fray.
But at what cost? Pelosi loyalists say that, ideology aside, Obama simply isn’t getting as much from negotiations as he should, because his bottom line is fuzzy. “The first rule of politics,” one senior congressional aide said, “is to know where you want to get to before you start.”
Democratic activists are disillusioned by what they perceive as Obama’s quick capitulation to Republicans. As labor leaders met in Washington last week for private conferences, the criticism of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid turned caustic.
“His decisions don’t seem to be anchored to anything,” one prominent Democratic operative complained to me. “Democrats desperately want to support him, but aren’t sure what they’re supporting or why.” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and press secretary Jay Carney didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
On the eve of Obama’s speech Wednesday outlining his budget goals, liberal groups such as MoveOn.org and Campaign for America’s Future began to mobilize in anticipation that he would again acquiesce to Republican positions. Privately, Pelosi used that opening to reassert her influence with the president.
She called White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and drew a line in the sand: Democrats couldn’t tolerate capitulation by Obama to Republican demands for restructuring Medicare, which they hope to make the central campaign issue of 2012.
“Let me be absolutely clear,” Obama said Wednesday. “I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry.” The partisan speech infuriated Republicans, set back negotiations in the Senate — and delighted Democratic activists.
But the next morning, Obama was in the Oval Office with the chairmen of his bipartisan debt commission, whose recommendations have inflamed liberals. “Very frankly, it is the framework that they developed that helps to shape my thinking,” he said.
Pelosi’s piloting skills aren’t what they used to be.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.