Obama vs. Pelosi: Can the President Work with the Democrats?

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Jason Reed / Reuters

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listens as President Barack Obama speaks to the press before a meeting with bipartisan congressional leadership in the White House

For all his high-minded talk of bipartisanship and common purpose, Barack Obama was always aware that Republicans in Congress weren't going to simply set aside their philosophical differences and embrace the new President's ambitious agenda. But he had reason to hope that Democrats on Capitol Hill, while not going along with everything, would at least give him a honeymoon period. So it must be a bit of a jolt these days for Obama to frequently find himself so out of step with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose tacit support of Obama's campaign was felt long before her endorsement was made official.

On nearly every major issue — from the auto bailout and the stimulus bill to tax cuts and the delicate question of whether to investigate Bush Administration officials for crimes related to torture — Pelosi has voiced and even pushed through the House differing positions from the President, at times to the embarrassment of Democrats. Obama and Pelosi each, of course, have distinct motives, and personalities: Pelosi is a partisan warrior who must tend to her caucus, while Obama got elected as a postpartisan healer, implicitly attacking the old ways of Washington and striving to appeal to a broader national base. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

But their differences could have serious consequences. Democrats are enjoying expanded majorities in both congressional chambers as well as control of the White House, but their potential to see much of their agenda passed rests on their ability to get along. Past Speakers — most notably Democrat Tip O'Neill, whose intraparty bouts with Jimmy Carter were legendary — have squandered similarly powerful party perches when they've turned on the Executive Branch. "All marriages have ups and downs, but Obama will ultimately win. He is President with significant political capital," says James Thurber, founder of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "And he must build cross-party support, something Pelosi does not excel at."

Still, even though Obama has an approval rating roughly three times the size of Congress's, Pelosi has shown herself unwilling to quietly execute Obama's agenda the way former Speaker Dennis Hastert did President George W. Bush's. Back then, House Republicans didn't openly revolt against President Bush until the sixth year of his Administration, bitterly but quietly swallowing early bipartisan programs like the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan and No Child Left Behind. By contrast, even before Obama took office, he and Pelosi diverged on bailing out the failing auto companies. Looking to secure as much support as possible for the controversial aid package, Obama did not rule out Republican proposals to use a fund set up in early 2008 to modernize the industry rather than TARP money — a move Pelosi vehemently opposed. Pelosi was forced to swallow a compromise, though that deal died in the Senate and ultimately President Bush used money from the bank bailout to help Detroit. (See pictures of the remains of Detroit.)

Pelosi has also been vocal in calling on the President to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans this year, a move Obama has been unwilling to commit to in the current economic climate; some in the Administration have suggested that it's preferable to just let the cuts lapse when they expire next year. And the House Speaker has refused to rule out investigating former Bush Administration officials, even after Obama said he would prefer to keep the party's focus forward-looking.

But the starkest differences have been over the stimulus plan. In early January, Obama said he would like to see as much of 40% of the stimulus bill be comprised of tax cuts. Pelosi didn't agree, ultimately delivering legislation with just a third in tax cuts. When House Republicans objected to two provisions in the bill — one providing Medicaid family-planning aid to states, and another funding restoration of the National Mall — Obama quickly asked to have the offending items removed. Around the same time, he traveled to the Hill to reach out to and commiserate with the House GOP. (See pictures of Obama behind the scenes on Inauguration Day.)

Sensing the rift, House Republicans have sought to play the two off each other. The message upon leaving their meeting with Obama last week was: "We'd encourage the House leadership to emulate the President in his outreach to our party," as Representative Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, said archly. Or, as a House GOP leadership aide said at the time, "If you have an opponent with a 70% approval rating and one with a 20% approval rating, you're going to go after the one with a 20% approval rating." In explaining why not a single Republican voted for the stimulus package, the GOP squarely blamed Pelosi for failing to live up to Obama's bipartisan mantra and writing a bill without any input from the other side.

"Is it your fault in some ways," pressed a reporter at Pelosi's weekly press conference last Thursday, "that Barack Obama's first vote was so partisan and not bipartisan?"

Pelosi snapped back: "I didn't come here to be partisan. I didn't come here to be bipartisan. I came here, as did my colleagues, to be nonpartisan, to work for the American people, to do what is in their interest."

Obama may have the political capital, but Pelosi has no illusions about the way things work on Capitol Hill. "What she realized with Obama coming in was that, yeah, we can go through this dance, but at the end of the day, this was going to be a tutorial for the Obama folks," a House staffer close to Pelosi told Politico. "They're all going to vote against you and then come to your cocktail party that night." (See pictures of Obama's college years.)

Some of the friction could just be cosmetic to appease both the progressive base and moderates. "It's the old routine of bad cop (Pelosi), good cop (Obama); partisanship vs. bipartisanship," says Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University. "It is also a bargaining tool to limit what the Republicans can expect from the legislation in exchange for their support."

Ultimately, Pelosi and Obama's relationship is in its early stages, and the first major trial of their marriage is yet to come. But it may come sooner than either would like. "The real test of the Obama-Pelosi relationship will be what Pelosi does if the Senate, as expected, trims the House fat and pumps up the honest stimulus part of the bill," says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "It seems to me that Obama is very likely to embrace the Senate approach. Will Pelosi go along with Obama or join the House liberals in trying to maintain the party's wish list as a big slice of the stimulus bill?"

Read "Rickrolled by Nancy Pelosi."

Read "The GOP Grapples with Obama's Charm Offensive."