Nancy Pelosi's House: After Her Historic First Term as Speaker, Tough Challenges Ahead

Even critics praise her political skills, which will be tested by the debate over a stimulus package.

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With great fanfare, Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House of Representatives two years ago and proclaimed that she'd "shattered the marble ceiling."

Now, Jan. 4, 2007, the date when she rose to become the first woman to serve as House speaker in U.S. history, seems an eternity ago. After an extraordinary spate of bad economic news, the 68-year-old House leader, who is two heartbeats away from the presidency, will open the new Congress on Tuesday with, no doubt, a much less celebratory tone—even with an ally on his way to the White House.

The new political order—Democrats controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, with bigger majorities in Congress—could prove a blessing or a curse. This country's vexing problems, led by the sputtering economy, now belong to Democrats. Unified government means an end to the blame game. They've got to produce results—and quickly—since every single member of "Pelosi's House" faces voters again on Nov. 2, 2010.

How'd she do, and what's ahead?

Observers critiquing her tenure as "Madam Speaker" give her mixed marks for legislative accomplishments. They noted that she failed to achieve the campaign pledge—to end the war in Iraq—that arguably was responsible for her promotion to speaker. "Her weakness is to overpromise and underdeliver," says Ron Bonjean, who was communications director for her predecessor, Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Still, even Republicans like Bonjean admire Pelosi's political skills after she helped mastermind two back-to-back Democratic wave elections, a feat unseen since the 1930s. A fundraising dynamo, she brought in a reported $40 million for Democratic candidates in the past two years, making her far and away the House's top fundraiser.

She traveled like mad. In a single weekend, her itinerary had her campaigning in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Atlanta—and aides say that pace was not unusual. In her official capacity as speaker, she traveled abroad widely, too, hitting 16 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the Heritage Foundation, Vice President of Government Relations Michael Franc rarely sees eye to eye with Pelosi on issues, but he observed: "After the last two election cycles and a swing of 50-plus seats, you have to give credit where credit is due. She's fundamentally transformed the House of Representatives. This is 'Pelosi's House.' "

Political scientists say she surprised those who either underestimated her or dismissed her as a latte liberal. They note that she emerged such a strong leader that her gender, so highlighted two years ago, now seems inconsequential.

From Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution: "She's probably gained the reputation of one of the strongest and most effective speakers in decades. Those who were skeptical, based on her being ideologically extreme or insufficiently attuned to the institutional and political nuances of the House, were proven wildly off base."

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute adds, "She behaved like a speaker who happens to be female. Nancy is tough-minded, strong-willed, has great political skills, and has an incredible amount of energy. Everything in life relates to gender in one way or another, but let's face it, those are all qualities that make you a good speaker."

Associates say she is strategic, shrewd, tenacious, and driven. Even when on vacation in Hawaii last month, by 5:30 a.m. local time, she was on the phone to the Capitol.

Behind her back, some GOP opponents ridicule her as "Queen" or "Czar." They question her grasp of policy minutiae and maintain she can't handle the back-and-forth of the Sunday talk shows. One Republican called her arrogant and unafraid to stick a knife in someone's back, then added, admiringly: "She was interested in one thing—winning—and it worked."

Her victories included congressional ethics reform, a minimum wage hike, tougher gas-mileage standards for autos, and beefed-up benefits for veterans. In the House, one vote is enough to pass a bill, but the Democrats' narrow control of the Senate—and veto threats from President Bush—thwarted an array of her aims.