Nancy Pelosi repeatedly stood to applaud Barack Obama when he addressed a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. But in the days since, the speaker of the House has been standing up for herself —distancing herself from the president on Iraq, on tax cuts and on the prosecution of former Bush administration officials.
Pelosi’s aides say the speaker was comfortable playing the role of Obama’s shield during the stimulus fight—Republicans teed off on her rather than on the immensely popular new president—and that she remains strongly supportive of the administration on health care, energy and education reform.
But on Iraq and other high-profile issues that matter to her, aides say Pelosi has no intention of holding her tongue when she thinks Obama is wrong.
And she’s not alone.
While Newt Gingrich complained that Tuesday’s night unofficial State of the Union looked like a “Democratic pep rally,” the aftermath has looked more like a sibling rivalry.
On Wednesday morning, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)—the longest-serving member of the Senate—accused Obama of trying to steal power from Congress by appointing White House “czars” to handle issues that would otherwise be handled by departments subject to congressional oversight.
On Wednesday night, Pelosi made it clear to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that she wasn’t happy with Obama’s plan to leave 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and that, unlike Obama, she “absolutely” favors criminal prosecutions for any Bush administration officials involved in torture or other excesses in the fight against terrorism.
On Thursday, Pelosi said she’d move “faster” than Obama is to roll back Bush-era tax cuts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Chuck Schumer joined Pelosi’s critique of Obama’s plan to leave. Reid urged Obama not to push too hard to eliminate congressional earmarks. And Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi took a shot at Obama’s budget, saying “change is not running up even bigger deficits that George Bush did.”
Congressional Democrats are hardly in open revolt. But Obama apparently took the criticisms of his Iraq plan seriously enough that he summoned Democratic and Republican leaders to the White House to brief them on the plan Thursday evening in advance of his roll-out Friday at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
A senior Pelosi aide said Thursday that the president and the speaker share “the same vision” and “the same goals” overall.
“She is totally supportive of him on most things,” the aide said. “But as with anything, there are going to be disagreements.”
Pelosi's public disagreements with Obama reflect her strongly held personal views — as well as the views of the majority of her caucus, which is liberal/progressive. Pelosi is always cognizant that her most important constituency is her base among House Democrats.
As she respects and protects that base, pushing back against the president has its advantages. Democratic aides have talked over the past few weeks of Pelosi's need to sometimes "triangulate" against Obama with Reid—to deliver a don't-tread-on-me-message to the White House and to keep Reid and Obama from establishing a permanent political double-team.
The end-game of the stimulus—during which Pelosi was forced to grapple with a final Obama-Reid deal —reinforced those motives.
"We can't let the Senate always push us around by shouting, 'We need 6O!" a House Democratic aide said a week ago.
Some of the disagreements between Pelosi and Obama are substantive; some of them are about turf.
Even before Obama took office, Pelosi told his soon-to-be chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, to butt out of House Democratic affairs.
In a recent private meeting, Democratic insiders say Pelosi and Obama butted heads over his desire to cut down in earmarks in annual apending bills.
The earmarks are popular punching bags—the Obama administration vowed that there’d be none in the stimulus package—but they’re also popular with a lot of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Pelosi, aware of that reality, told Obama that she’d help to cut back on earmarks, but not as quickly as he might like, insiders said.
“We are reducing them, but members still want them,” a Democratic insider said Pelosi told the president.
Pelosi, of course, remains a strong Obama supporter.
On Thursday, she called his 2010 budget proposal “a message of realism, but . . . also a message of optimism and hope.” And she expressed support for Obama’s proposal to set aside $634 billion as a down payment toward health care reform. Pelosi argued that the country must make changes to the Medicare and Medicaid programs in order to put its financial house in order, and she chided Republicans by arguing that Obama’s plan represents the “entitlement reform” for which they often clamor.
“If we are ever going to address the fiscal challenge that we face — and that includes all of our spending, but sometimes more frequently described through the entitlements — we must have health care reform,” Pelosi said.
Top Pelosi aides downplayed the differences she has with the president, and note that she supports “95 percent” of his agenda.
They also point out that Pelosi has stated repeatedly that her role is not to simply execute the president’s wishes – a lapdog role she repeatedly accused former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) of playing when the GOP controlled the House during the Bush years.
“She has a difference of opinion” with Obama on some issues, a senior Democratic staffer acknowledged. “But unlike recent Republican speakers, she’s not going to be a rubber stamp for the president.”
Glenn Thrush contributed to this report.