Pelosi Unpopular? “I Don't Care”

Most powerful woman in the country not particularly liked or trusted

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the most despised political figures in the country.

And, frankly, she doesn’t give a damn.

“No, I don’t care,” Pelosi told POLITICO last Thursday, laughing heartily as she walked beneath the Capitol dome and plunged into a crowd of tourists. 

Last week’s Public Strategies Inc./POLITICO poll brought grim news for Pelosi, revealing that only a quarter of Americans trust the San Francisco Democrat — putting her in the basement with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Mention of the “trust” question halted the click-clack of Pelosi’s heels against Rotunda marble, and she turned to face the reporter who posed the question.

“I don’t know about ‘trust’ — I think I’m trusted,” she said.

“I certainly want to be trusted. I’m not particularly concerned if I’m liked.”

But month after month of polling shows that the speaker is neither trusted nor liked by the general public — even as she emerges from one of the most productive legislative periods any speaker has ever enjoyed.

By contrast, Newt Gingrich’s popularity tanked only after his conservative revolution sputtered and he had helped shut down the federal government.

Gallup now measures Pelosi’s unfavorability ratings at 48 percent — with her favorability index registering a paltry 32 percent.

That’s 12 points lower than her numbers were just six months ago, during the first flush days of the Obama administration. And it puts the most powerful woman in the country’s history on a par with Dick Cheney and only a few clicks better than Boehner, an unknown quantity to most Americans.

“Nancy Pelosi is not only vastly unpopular with the American public, but her credibility is waning within her own party,” said Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In a recent interview with POLITICO, Pelosi countered: “Our leadership team is so effective it is driving Republicans to distraction. And they and their allies have decided that I am their target, and they come after me relentlessly — relentlessly. On the left, I have to put forth a bill that’s going to fund the war and the rest, and they’re not happy about that. So none of it is a popularity contest. You just have to be responsible for the job you’re setting out to do.” 

Being speaker is, as she says, an inside job. Pelosi is insulated from the negative effects of low national poll numbers because she answers only to two micro-constituencies — her mostly affluent, overwhelmingly liberal Bay Area district and a 262-member Democratic caucus that respects, fears, follows and largely likes the 69-year-old workaholic.

“She’s OK,” says one member from the Northeast. “You don’t have to love her, but she’s good. ... She’s solid with us, and that’s all that matters, although she could take a real hit internally if we bungle the health care bill. ... This week’s going to be the biggest week of her speakership.” 

Adds House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.): “She’s what I like to call ‘operational’ — she knows how to get things done.”

Sources close to the speaker say she’s so unconcerned with her own popularity she won’t commission national polls, as many congressional leaders often do. But individual Democratic members do test her name in their districts, with results grimly similar to the national data in public surveys.

Conservatives have always hated Pelosi for her Left Coast brand of liberalism and her penchant for moralizing, with right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin caricaturing her as a “Queen Nancy” who surrounds herself with Evian, white lilies and vanilla-scented candles.

Her defenders say there’s always been a strong undercurrent of misogyny in the criticism, a charge lent some credence by the sheer mass of anti-Pelosi vitriol in the blogosphere and in the comments section of news outlets such as POLITICO.

Rush Limbaugh has accused Pelosi of flip-flopping on waterboarding in order to make a “fashion statement.”

“She wears Armani clothes — fashionable; Botox shots — fashionable; she’s against waterboarding — fashionable,” Limbaugh said earlier this year. “Of course, after 9/11 she was for waterboarding! That was fashion then.”

These days, however, disdain for Pelosi has gone more mainstream, with her popularity ebbing among independents and centrist Republicans.

Her aides acknowledge that the current spike in anti-Pelosi sentiment was probably fueled by the speaker’s handling of the waterboarding controversy this spring. Her muddled explanation of when she knew about enhanced interrogation left fellow Democrats scratching their heads and may have left some voters believing she can’t be trusted.

But people close to Pelosi say there’s another element in her growing unpopularity: Her willingness to walk the point for Obama on nearly every major legislative issue, drawing fire that have would otherwise been directed at the White House or the gun-shy Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“She doesn’t mind that role, but it certainly doesn’t help her personally,” said one Democratic strategist. “She’s the tactician — you always need someone to be driving the bus —it’s about forward motion, not popularity.”

Republicans have tried unsuccessfully to leverage Pelosi’s problems against Democratic candidates for the past three cycles. But they believe the speaker has given them an opening in 2010 by moving so quickly on the cap-and-trade bill, which could be a drag on Democrats in about a dozen battleground districts.

The NRCC has spent the better part of the month hammering away at freshman members such as Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), arguing that the vote will lead to the loss of jobs and a huge increase in utility rates.

“Her obsession over the cap-and-trade legislation has created a backlash among the rank and file, who are reluctant to cast another bad vote, and as a result, she appears to have put the president’s agenda in jeopardy,” added Spain, the NRCC’s spokesman.

Pelosi supporters admit they are disheartened by her poll numbers but say they don’t pose a major political threat to her speakership as long as she keeps rolling up legislative victories.

That’s no sure thing these days, with the health care debate splintering fiscally conservative Blue Dogs and liberals.

But they take solace in this fact: She’s still better off than Gingrich when he was at the same point, two-plus years into his short speakership. His approval rating had already sunk to 25 percent in 1997, after shutting down the government and whining about having to exit from the rear of President Bill Clinton’s plane.

“All these other leaders — Tom Delay, Newt, Dick Gephardt — had higher aspirations,” said a Pelosi confidant. “Her advantage is that members know it’s all about them and not about her. She has no higher aspirations. This is it.”

Mike Allen contributed to this story.

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