The late Sen. Alban Barkley was once asked what makes a great senator. Barkley thought and thought. Grand oratorical skills? Not really. A sharp intellect? Not necessarily. Finally, Barkley looked his questioner in the eye and replied, "To be a great senator, first you have to get elected."
That keen observation helps explain the apparent disconnect between President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on significant policy issues. To be a great speaker -- to hold that powerful office at all -- first you have to get elected.
Like House leaders before her, it's not her district election that Pelosi has to worry about; she's got a decent hold on her overwhelmingly Democratic San Francisco district -- despite local grumbling that Pelosi has become too "moderate" to please her lefty constituents. The latest Field Poll shows her approval dipping dramatically even in her home state, but that's nowhere near her biggest problem.
It's her liberal-leaning Democratic Caucus in the House that Pelosi has to keep happy. Although the speaker is formally elected by the whole House, it's the majority party that anoints the speaker.
In 2006, Pelosi became the first woman, first Italian-American and first Californian to serve as speaker. She's also second in line for presidential succession, behind the vice president. That's a distinction most politicians would fight hard not to lose. The gravitational pull is just too great.
Pelosi's first priority is to maintain her speakership, and that means protecting her Democratic majority through the 2010 elections -- even if it means bucking her own party's president (at least until the risk becomes too great).
There's no better example than her tug of war -- with the White House, Senate and House moderates and with herself -- over health care reform. Liberals demand a public option for health insurance, while Democrats representing moderate and swing districts are heading into the election year demanding that liberals back off. Pelosi has insisted that the House bill will have a public option, even in watered-down form -- despite the president's less-than-total commitment to that goal. That stance will help her line up her liberal colleagues, but what about the moderates? Won't that alienate them -- let alone threaten them politically?
Well, Pelosi hasn't addressed what the final product must have. If she plays it right, she can keep the liberal majority of her caucus happy while letting the Senate take the public lead in protecting the Democrats' moderate flank with a compromise that is mutually repugnant to all sides.
Pelosi also has to pay at least lip service to the interest groups -- unions, trial lawyers and other constituencies -- that will supply the money and manpower for the Democrats' midterm election campaigns. That's nothing new, really, but it can make for a bumpy policy debate.
Overall, the modern speakership is a far cry from the days of, say, Rep. Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), when the "man behind the curtain" routinely called the shots on Capitol Hill.
Today, there's a lot more attention paid to what congressional leaders do and say. Smoke-filled rooms have been replaced by the 24-hour news cycle, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. That makes compromise harder and leadership (on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue) an often helter-skelter proposition.
There is irony in all of this tumult. Pelosi may be playing to her crowd -- independent of Obama's wants -- to solidify her base. But in the end, everything Pelosi wants to accomplish depends, to a large extent, on the president. For her to be successful, Obama needs to be successful.
In the end, an effective leader can't keep his or her sway in protective custody. The time for serious horse-trading is here.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior fellow in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California and political analyst at NBC-4 Los Angeles.