PRESIDENT

04.14.11

D.C.’s Stumbling Leaders

Power is fleeting in Washington—and so is the perception of power.

Barack Obama is still suspect, John Boehner has hit a stumbling block, and Nancy Pelosi is so far off the radar that even if some of the sleeping air traffic controllers were woken up, they couldn’t find her.

The president’s stock ticked up after Wednesday’s speech because liberals loved his defense of the welfare state (stripped down, to be sure) and his line-in-the-sand approach to slashing the safety net or turning Medicare into a voucher plan. But Obama has let the political waves wash over his lines in the sand before. He is again vowing to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, as he did in the campaign, but he caved on that in the lame-duck budget deal. Given that Obama stuck to broad themes, his supporters may be wary that he’ll dig in and fight rather than cede too much to the Republicans in the name of bipartisanship.

Still, given where Obama was after November’s shellacking, he’s certainly climbed back into the ring.

Boehner’s had a pretty good run, holding his caucus together, avoiding overreach and getting most of what he wanted in the shutdown negotiations—in fact, more in spending cuts than the GOP originally proposed. But it turns out the $38 billion in reductions include plenty of gimmicks, such as counting money in various reserve funds and bonus programs that wasn’t going to be spent anyway. Now some of his most conservative members are threatening to vote against it (though it should pass easily with Democratic votes).

“What we didn’t assume,” says National Review, “was that the agreement would be shot through with gimmicks and one-time savings. What had looked in its broad outlines like a modest success now looks like a sodden disappointment… It’s one thing for Tea Party Republicans to vote for a cut that falls short of what they’d get if the controlled all of Washington; it’s another thing for them, after making so much of bringing transparency and honesty to the Beltway, to vote for a deal sold partly on false pretenses.”

But at least Boehner had a seat at an exclusive table. Pelosi couldn’t even get near the table, Politico reports. “None of the power brokers wanted her in the room. They feared that her presence and her defense of liberal values would have made it impossible for Obama to cut a deal with Boehner. The sources say Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also was excluded so the White House could justify keeping Pelosi out.”

Metaphor alert: The minority leader was off in Massachusetts, giving a speech at Tufts University, while Obama and Boehner cobbled together the deal.

It’s never easy being in the minority, where the other side controls the committees and the calendar. Lots of people thought Pelosi would quit after losing the speakership. But after being on magazine covers as the first woman to hold the post, after pushing through health care and being likened to Sam Rayburn, this has to be a big comedown for the San Francisco Democrat.

Of course, the time may come when Boehner slips or Obama stumbles and Pelosi is crucial to putting together some deal. As I say, power is fleeting inside the Beltway, and the next comeback story is always just around the corner.