At the same time Obama was wooing Dent and other Republicans, the House Speaker was going in the opposite direction. Dent says he wanted to talk about some of his concerns, but Democratic leaders ignored him. Pelosi didn't share the president's dream of brotherly love breaking out in the Capitol. She was in charge, this was her bill and she would decide what was in it. To the ire of Republicans, and some Democrats, Pelosi maneuvered to put the stimulus package on an emergency fast track, cutting short debate on the bill and cutting Republicans out of the discussion. "I believe the president was absolutely sincere in looking for a bipartisan outcome," Dent says. "But the White House lost control of the process when the bill was outsourced to Pelosi."
There is always friction between the White House and Congress, even when one party rules both. Obama naturally believes that after winning an arduous campaign, he's earned the right to run the show. But Pelosi worked just as hard to get her job. A sharp-elbowed San Francisco multimillionaire who battled her way to the top of a club still dominated by men, she has no intention of being Obama's gofer. Pelosi, who declined to be interviewed for this story, spent years plotting the Democrats' 2006 comeback. Obama can talk all he wants about "bipartisanship"—her job is to keep the GOP in the minority. Pelosi was dismissive of suggestions that she should have been more solicitous of the other side. "Yes, we wrote this bill," Pelosi said at a press conference. "Yes, we won this election." Then she dialed back her tone. Of course she was interested in bipartisanship, she added quickly. "The president is working hard to get that done."
This tension has left the president and the Speaker with a complicated relationship that hovers somewhere between friend and frenemy. Obama and Pelosi respect, even like, each other. (During his speech before Congress last week, she jumped out of her seat to applause so often that the gossip Web site Gawker dubbed her "Pop-Up Pelosi.") And they need each other politically. But they can still get on each other's nerves. Some White House aides have begun to grumble privately that the president has a Pelosi problem. In some ways, says a senior Obama official, "dealing with Democrats has been tougher than dealing with Republicans." (The official, like other White House and congressional sources quoted in this article, asked not to be named so he could speak candidly.)
Obama and his aides, the official says, were upset over press leaks—which they believe came from Pelosi's office—suggesting Obama was "naive" to reach out to Republicans. Obama gets that Democrats in Congress still harbor resentment over the way GOP leaders treated them when Democrats were in the minority. Pelosi's allies say they wanted to work with Republicans on the stimulus and sought their input last fall. They accuse the GOP of trying to embarrass Obama by voting en masse against the stimulus. No doubt there's truth to that: Republican leader John Boehner muscled his members not to break ranks.
© Janet Crain
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