It’s been a rough year for Nancy Pelosi. The California Democrat had to surrender her speaker’s gavel in January after the largest loss of Democratic seats in the House in 70 years. Some in her own party blamed the policies she pursued for the bloodbath. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the White House relegated her to the sidelines as President Obama sought to cut fleeting deals with Republicans. “Look, it’s been frustrating,” says her friend and ally Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). “But she’s not one to lick her wounds.”
That was abundantly clear last week when Pelosi once again demonstrated her wily political skills. Opposed to a stopgap spending bill that offset increased disaster aid with cuts to a program that made loans to car companies, the minority leader capitalized on the ideological discord plaguing the GOP and persuaded her caucus to join 48 renegade Republicans in withholding the votes needed to pass the measure. The result was an embarrassing defeat for Speaker John Boehner, demonstrating how little control he has over House Republicans. (Boehner publicly scrambled to convince a handful of members that they should change their minds for a vote early Friday, but the Senate rejected it later in the day.)
After nine months in the wilderness, Pelosi seems to have found her footing and her voice. At 71, she is careening around the country using the same tactics that helped propel her to the speaker’s job in 2006—slamming Republicans and talking about America’s tradition of helping the disenfranchised. She has raised nearly $20 million this year for congressional races—proving again that she is one of the best fundraisers in either party.
In a series of conversations Pelosi told Newsweek she has urged Obama to finally take off the gloves and fight for core Democratic priorities. She’s also had many conversations with White House chief of staff William Daley. In the last few weeks, Obama seems to be heeding the advice, pushing an aggressive jobs bill, proposing to increase taxes on millionaires, and vowing to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits.
That doesn’t mean Pelosi’s frustrations have abated. “For the past eight months,” she says, the White House has had “no celebratory bill signings. Do you remember any that they signed, any bill? No.” She predicts that if Republicans hold on to the House and Obama is reelected, “it’s going to be two years again of a presidency without a legislative agenda.”
An energized Pelosi could prove crucial to Obama’s fortunes in 2012 as he tries to woo back the coalition that helped him win the White House in the first place. On a recent trip to Denver, a well-heeled group of women paid $1,000 each for breakfast and a glimpse of the old Pelosi, the gracious grandmother and ferocious partisan. “The Republicans have given us so much material ... grist for the mill,” the former speaker gleefully told them.
The White House did little to help Pelosi last year as her opponents spent $75 million trying to demonize her—even though she delivered some tough votes for Obama’s agenda. “She annoyed the White House,” says a former administration official, “but she passed everything, at enormous political cost to her personally and to her caucus.”
Many thought she would step aside in disgrace after the November losses. In fact, those close to Pelosi say many of her family members didn’t want her to run for minority leader. “It wasn’t anything I was dying to do,” she says. “It’s a big, heavy lift.” But her political friends told her she had an obligation to continue the battle.
But Pelosi is a long way from getting her gavel back. Nowhere was her challenge more apparent than during the American Legion’s annual convention, where she received a standing ovation for her work in aiding veterans. But the response from some was tepid when attendees were asked if they wanted her returned to power. “Well, I don’t know about that,” said Walter Ivie, a Vietnam veteran from Texas. “Democrats spend too much.”
Pelosi shakes her head at the paradox. “The thing is, they’re on Medicare. They’re on Social Security,” she says. “They have Uncle Sam’s hand in their pocket with them every step of the way, and they’re against government.”