WASHINGTON — Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have the demeanor of someone who leads a Congress suffering from the worst public disapproval in contemporary polling history. Its standing is about as low as the Nixonian depths reached recently by none other than President Bush — the man whose policies Democrats were elected to reverse, or at least check.

With the president’s unrelenting personal intransigence and shrewd political gamesmanship among Republicans, it has begun to look — at least to some — that it’s the new Congress and not the same old White House that keeps the nation mired in Iraq and in other unacceptable policy impasses, foreign and domestic.

Pelosi is unperturbed. This speaker of the House does not know to play defense or, more likely, she simply refuses to.

At a breakfast with liberal journalists earlier this week, Pelosi outlined a domestic policy agenda so elegant in its symmetrical pursuit of both long-range change (an attack on global warming) and lunch-bucket progress (a bumper crop of “green collar jobs” to be created from investing in new energy technologies) that you begin to believe she is of a rare species among practiced Washington hands: That is, her political instincts come from somewhere well beyond the Beltway.

“I gaveled that gavel down on behalf of the children and not the status quo,” she says, recalling the moment when she took the oath as the first woman speaker in history.

She was, in this particular comment, explaining why she will go toe-to-toe over energy policy with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of the House, an “old bull” of the Democratic Caucus — and the most vigorous defender of the automobile industry, which has opposed increasing energy-saving fuel-economy standards for three decades. But Pelosi also made clear her bristling could apply to any of the hidebound ways with which Washington — and even the House she has led since January — disposes of ideas it considers inconvenient.

“Washington, D.C., is the city of the status quo,” Pelosi said of the town whose cloakroom intricacies she mastered during her 20-year climb to power. “For so many years, I would come from California, a very entrepreneurial state, where every time I met with my constituents, you’re meeting with a room full of dreamers. Dreamers with a plan to do something great for our country. … You’d be all revved up when you come home, and then you’d go back to Washington and you hit a wall.”

Pelosi now has the power to chisel at the wall. She unabashedly lists on her own website the 22 veto threats the White House has issued against a raft of bills the House already has passed, or is about to. The president’s targets include everything from routine spending bills to a far-reaching measure that would clean up the student loan industry, to legislation that gives the citizens of the District of Columbia a vote in Congress.

Pelosi’s agenda is undiminished. She believes that neither immigration reform nor any free-trade deals are likely to be approved without companion legislation to soothe the economic insecurity felt by millions of Americans. So she pledges measures on job creation and retraining. She relishes a fight with the Bush White House over expanding health insurance to cover more needy children, since it pits Republican efforts to spare the tobacco and managed-care industries against the Democrats’ determination to use money from tobacco taxes and reduced insurance-industry subsidies to cover kids. “Welcome to the discussion,” she says. “This will be a defining kind of debate for us.”

But the defining issue that drove voters to oust Republicans from control of Capitol Hill last fall was Iraq. Having opposed the war from the start, she says she shares the frustration of those who are enraged that the Democrats have not yet stopped the carnage. Once Senate Republicans blocked measures to set timelines and political conditions for continuing the U.S. military presence, “we just plummeted” in public approval, Pelosi says.

The next chance for political progress on the war comes in September, the due date for a military report on the effectiveness of the president’s troop surge. Pelosi expects the usual fudging: “I’m very concerned that they will kick the can further down the road, or talk about a few anecdotal successes that they’ll try to pass off as the (whole) situation in Iraq,” she says.

Pelosi does not yet reveal a full-blown Democratic strategy for handling this, but it would seem to have one certain element. She will kick back.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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