Lessons from a Legendary Leader: How Nancy Pelosi Helped Shape Public Sentiment

My former boss, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, loves to quote Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

As it turned out, Pelosi sometimes helped shape that public sentiment, despite the constant attacks that kept her approval ratings low.

Her uncompromising message against the Iraq War and the Republican “culture of corruption” in 2006 helped Democrats win back the House of Representatives after a long 12 years in the minority. Senior House Democrats often liken it to herding cats, but it has developed an umbrella message for a “New Direction for America” that enabled all factions of the party to unite and oppose President George W. Bush’s unpopular policies, from the war in Iraq to his plan. to partially privatize Social Security.

It may not have been particularly creative, but it was effective. And her historic career as a legendary legislative leader includes lessons for today’s communications professionals: Keep your eyes on the prize, do your homework, listen to your colleagues and be willing to put in endless hard work. As she liked to say, in one of her many anaphora proverbs: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”

The willingness to repeat your message over and over again is also essential. When she was first elected in 2001 as the first-ever female congressional leader, she said repeatedly, “We made history. Now, let’s make progress.” For her, that meant it was okay to talk about breaking the glass ceiling, but she really wanted to make life better for “kids, kids, kids.” I used to smile when she told potential candidates that they had to be ready to “take punches…for the sake of the kids.” It was another reminder that politics is not an empty bag.

It was successful because it was principled and practical. She knew it would be politically difficult for Democrats to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and it could cost Democrats their majority. (Spoiler alert: It did, with a historic “bombing” in that year’s midterm elections.) But she told her caucus that if Democrats don’t pass health care reform then, with the president in the House and a Democratic majority in Congress, it never will. She was right, of course. She insisted I pass on the entire package, not a small copy of it.

“We are not here to keep our business, we are here to do our business,” she said. That is why I believe, as do many who have followed the entire debate closely, that without Nancy Pelosi, there is no Affordable Care Act.

While her tireless work ethic, no-nonsense approach to legislation and ability to count votes are unparalleled, she also understands the importance of symbols. Pelosi was known for bringing her grandchildren and other children to the podium when she first became Speaker of the House in January 2007, symbolizing her commitment to “the kids.”

She knew she was an inspiration to young women everywhere, often telling them to “know your strength.” By this she meant that they should be confident in who they are and the unique individual contributions they can make.

She became the face of opposition to former President Donald Trump, in part through iconic moments we all still remember: She donned her sunglasses as she walked out of the White House in her iconic rust coat after beating Trump in a 2018 caucus; standing and pointing at him in a room full of men at the 2019 meeting at the White House or tearing up her copy of Trump’s 2020 State of the Union “lies” while sitting behind him on the House podium.

This iconic image cuts both ways. For more than two decades, Republicans have targeted Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American politics, as a vicious Democratic villain. And they spent tens of millions to promote this message. In 2010, Republicans launched a Fire Pelosi ad campaign, complete with a photo of her on fire to help them oust her as speaker. Inflammatory language and brutal imagery have only increased in recent years, helping to fuel the flames of anger against Pelosi and may have played a role in the recent attack on her husband and the vile response to him by many on the right.

Pelosi’s dignified speech last week that “the time has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus,” gives us all an opportunity to reflect on how we can redefine Speakers. But for me, there is no debating that it has made progress for the children and for all of us.

Brendan Daley served as Nancy Pelosi’s Director of Communications from 2002 to 2011. He is now the Vice President of Communications for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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