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Free at Last

Obama enjoys life after Pelosi.

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Nancy Pelosi was an effective speaker, in the sense that she got things done and retained the trust of her caucus—sufficiently so that they were unwilling to ditch her even after the party’s epic loss in November. Pelosi as speaker was a hugely powerful figure in shaping outcomes in Washington; as minority leader, she simply is not.

Pelosi will still maintain some of the trappings of her former august station. She will still get invited to all the good meetings at the White House. She can be helpful to Obama by carrying his message to House Democrats and by refraining from opposing the White House despite her ideological leanings; an open rift between the minority leader and the White House makes for very ugly intra-party politics. But in 2009-2010, if Obama wanted to get anything done on Capitol Hill, he needed Pelosi, and he had the choice of either respecting the wishes of her caucus, or of provoking a confrontation that would split the party. Obama chose to accommodate.

A president makes such a choice in the knowledge that the Senate exerts a moderating influence on the passions of the House. Bills that pass the House en route to the Senate set a partisan benchmark; they rarely set the major terms of the final outcome. Unfortunately, the White House tends to end up associated with the more extreme partisan views of the House majority.

Accommodation with Pelosi pulled Obama away from the center he once commanded. Obama paid a price for this in the sharp drop in his approval ratings and then in his party’s loss of control of the House.

Did the Democrats “overreach”? Well, what goes by the name of “overreaching” is mostly the logic of the political process at work, albeit accompanied by extravagant rhetoric as well as after-the-fact rationalization to make the outcome appear to result from an overarching “political strategy.” It is, in fact, difficult not to overreach in such circumstances. It requires calculation, political will, and a stomach for intra-party conflict. 

The political logic has changed. Republican control of the House not only liberates Obama from the leftward tug that was costing him dearly. It also pushes outcomes in the direction he needs to move in order to regain support in the center.

Now it looks like the White House is gearing up for an emphasis on deficit reduction. That makes sense in the current political environment, not so much in order to placate the Tea Party but because Obama can find common ground with House Republicans on the issue to the extent he is willing to tolerate spending cuts. House Democrats, meanwhile, will stew in the juices of powerlessness.

Obama owes liberal Democrats one large commitment: preventing the repeal of health care reform, the hill for which the majority sacrificed itself. He has the power to do exactly that through 2013. And now that Nancy Pelosi is sidelined, maybe until 2017.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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