If I were a confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, my advice to the California Democrat would be, "No more news conferences. No more television appearances. Keep your public profile low. Focus on what you do best." Pelosi is like the student who gets A's in some subjects but D's and F's in others. She needs to avoid the areas where she tends to fail.
Arguably, Pelosi has amassed and centralized power more successfully than any other speaker in modern history. Committee chairmanships aren't what they used to be. The leadership -- specifically, the speaker -- now drives this car.
Her on-camera performance contributes to the misimpression that she is a lightweight.
In terms of behind-the-scenes machinations, she is as good as pols come. People who have underestimated Pelosi have done so at their own peril. But her public persona, the way she comes across on television, and the caricatures that have developed around Pelosi do her and her party no good.
First, look at the numbers. In January, CNN/Opinion Research polling pegged Pelosi with a 51 percent approval rating and a 22 percent disapproval rating. By early March, her approval rating had dropped 5 points. It dropped 7 more points in a poll conducted May 14-17, bringing her down to 39 percent. Meanwhile, her disapproval scores soared -- from 22 percent in January, to 30 percent in March, to the current 48 percent. While Congress's job-approval rating has gone up, even doubling over some past readings, to 37 percent according to Gallup and 41 percent in Fox News polling, the speaker's popularity has plummeted.
Polling by Research 2000 for the liberal blog Daily Kos shows a slightly different pattern in favorability ratings but leads to essentially the same conclusion. In four January surveys, the speaker's favorable ratings, ranging from 39 percent to 42 percent, barely exceeded her unfavorable ones, which were 36 percent to 38 percent. In two surveys this month, she registered 34 percent and 37 percent favorable ratings, with her unfavorables at 46 percent and 50 percent. Considering how few people actually pay attention to Capitol Hill, these are pretty lousy numbers.
Two main caricatures of Pelosi have developed. In the world of conservative talk radio, she is depicted as a lightweight, ultraliberal, San Francisco-socialite-turned-House-speaker, more a source of amusement than of fear, because these adversaries don't respect her enough to fear her. This cartoon image ignores Pelosi's Baltimore roots, however. She learned politics at the knee of her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, who over a 40-year career served as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, deputy state tax collector, Baltimore City Council member, Charm City mayor, and U.S. representative. His was the era of Big City machine politics when the accumulation and exercise of power was a high art.
His daughter learned her lessons well. Those who dismiss Pelosi's behind-the-scenes political talent do so out of ignorance, not firsthand observation. She has taken down some pretty formidable players in her rise to the top.
However, a second caricature of Pelosi has developed among those who are neither Republican nor conservative. On television, Pelosi often appears treacly and superficial, not the tough, fiercely determined woman she is behind closed doors. Her on-camera performance contributes to the misimpression that she is a lightweight.
Pelosi's disastrous May 14 news conference projected a third negative image, that of a politician caught overreaching and then mishandling the damage control. No matter how opaque the Central Intelligence Agency was in its briefing of Pelosi and other members of Congress in September 2002, after her news conference the score was CIA 1, Pelosi 0.
The speaker's constituents, outside of San Francisco, are the 434 other members of the House, particularly the other Democrats. There is no need for her to be a fixture on television sets across the country, and TV is certainly not her best venue.
When you are very good at one thing, stick to it.
This article appears in the May 23, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.