Lessons from a legendary leader: How Nancy Pelosi helped shape public sentiment

Brendan Daly looks back on working for the outgoing Democratic leader in the House.

Pelosi (left, with Daly) was elected the first female Speaker of the House in 2007.

My former boss, House Speaker 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 continuous attacks that kept her approval ratings low.  

Her relentless messaging against the Iraq War and the Republican “culture of corruption” in 2006 helped Democrats take back the House after 12 long years in the minority. Leading House Democrats is often like herding cats, but she developed an umbrella message of 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 especially creative, but it was effective. And her historic career as a legendary legislative leader has lessons for communications professionals today: 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 put it, in one of her many alliterative aphorisms: “proper preparation prevents poor performance.” 

A willingness to repeat your message over and over also is essential. She repeatedly said when she was first elected in 2001 as the first woman leader ever in Congress, “We have made history. Now, let us make progress.” For her, that meant it was fine to talk about breaking the glass ceiling, but really she wanted to make life better for “the children, the children, the children.” I used to smile when she would tell prospective candidates that they had to be prepared to “take a punch and throw a punch…for the children.” It was another reminder that politics ain’t beanbag. 

She was successful because she was both principled and practical. She knew that it would be politically difficult for Democrats to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and it might even cost Democrats their majority. (Spoiler alert: it did, with an historic “shellacking” in the midterm elections that year.) But she told her caucus that if Democrats didn’t pass healthcare reform right then, with the president on board and Democratic majorities in Congress, it would never happen. She was right, of course. She insisted on passing the entire package, not some small version of it.  

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

While her tireless work ethic, serious approach to legislating and ability to count votes are unmatched, she also understood the importance of symbols. Pelosi famously brought her grandchildren and other kids to the podium when she first became Speaker in January 2007, symbolizing her commitment to “the children.”  

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

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

That iconic image cuts both ways. For more than two decades, Republicans have targeted Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American politics, as an evil Democratic villain. And they spent tens of millions to reinforce that message. In 2010, the Republicans launched a “Fire Pelosi” ad campaign, complete with a picture of her engulfed in flames to help them oust her as speaker. The incendiary language and brutal images have only increased in recent years, helping to fan the flames of anger at Pelosi and may have had a role in the recent attack on her husband and the despicable response to it by many on the right.  

Pelosi’s gracious speech last week that “the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus,” gives us all a chance to reflect on how she redefined the speakership. But for me, there is no debate that she made progress for the children, and for all of us. 

Brendan Daly was Nancy Pelosi’s communications director from 2002 to 2011.

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