With Barack Obama in the White House, Nancy Pelosi is no longer the ringleader of the Democratic Party. Yet she's overseeing one of the most challenging congressional sessions in history because of an ambitious agenda and bitter partisanship. Those obstacles could diminish the power of someone less savvy, but it will most likely take more than that to undermine the speaker of the House.
Political acumen is in Pelosi's blood. Both her father and a brother were Baltimore mayors, and her father also served in the House of Representatives. However, she has made her own path. "One can't meet Nancy Pelosi without remembering when one has met Nancy Pelosi," says the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein, who has known her for 25 years. "There's always been an intensity about her."
First elected to represent San Francisco in 1987, Pelosi was a freshman the year Newt Gingrich launched his ethics attack on Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. Ten years later, Pelosi was the one earning spurs for toughness in the ethics investigation of Gingrich. But her fierceness can turn on her own party, too. In 2002, she helped lead 126 Democrats to vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, directly opposing fellow Democrat and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. In 2007, she became the first female speaker.
Pelosi, 69, may be facing her greatest challenge yet. Democratic control of both branches means high expectations to get an agenda passed. Conflicts within her own party, both from fiscally conservative "Blue Dogs" and from committee chairs with their own priorities, make that more difficult.
That partisanship sometimes backfires. Pelosi's calls for a "truth commission" to examine potentially illegal activities by the Bush administration, such as practices like waterboarding, wound up boomeranging back to her this month. After she said that CIA officials "misled" her in a September 2002 briefing on enhanced interrogation techniques, some Republicans seized on the claim to call for a full investigation of not only the Bush administration but also congressional lawmakers, including Pelosi—a result the speaker probably hadn't been expecting.
Still, so far, she's managed the pressures fairly well. More tensions will surely come. But for now, Pelosi seems to have a firm grasp on her power.
Updated on 5/19/09