Editor's note: Ed Henry has covered the White House for CNN since March 2006. In "Henry in the House," he offers an insider's view of the Obama White House.
Mumbai, India (CNN) -- It wasn't quite a presidential endorsement, but it was warm enough that outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, will take it.
White House aides signaled late Friday that President Obama expects Pelosi will win her bid for House minority leader and he's looking forward to working with her if she does win, even though the prospect of Pelosi staying front and center will cause heartburn among conservative Democrats and wild cheering by Republicans.
In a sign of just how tricky this subject is for the president right now, White House aides were in radio silence mode in the immediate aftermath of Pelosi's announcement that after losing the House majority she has decided to stay in Congress and run for minority leader instead of bolting the chamber altogether.
Finally, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs broke the public silence aboard Air Force One on the way to India for the start of the president's 10-day trip to Asia.
"The White House does not comment or get involved in leadership elections," Gibbs told reporters. "But as the president has said before, he appreciates the work of the speaker and the entire House Democratic leadership team, who have been great partners in moving the country forward. He looks forward to working with them in the years to come."
To be clear, Gibbs is saying the president is not going to "get involved" in the leadership race, which is the obvious course he would take since lawmakers are serious about any White House staying out of their internal business. The last thing Obama wants to do is to start dictating to House Democrats whom they should support and look like he's strong-arming them so quickly after a tough election for the party.
But the White House can also send unofficial signals, and in private conversations with Democrats close to the White House, I have gotten the sense that is what the administration is doing by saying warm things about her and not trying to block her effort. These Democrats say that despite the anti-Pelosi feeling out there, the president is very appreciative of the heavy lifting she did for him on health care reform, the stimulus and Wall Street reform.
Administration officials, meanwhile, also note that Pelosi is basing her campaign for minority leader on the premise that she will aggressively take on the Republicans and prevent them from dismantling the health care law and other key Obama priorities. It goes without saying that this is looked upon very favorably inside the White House, and they would rather have a fighter in the job than an untested new leader who may or may not go to the mat for Obama's priorities.
That is why Gibbs said the president "looks forward to working with them in the years to come." While that is obviously vague, it implies he expects Pelosi and other members of the current leadership to stick around. Saying the president "appreciates the work of the speaker" and the others for being "great partners" is the opposite of throwing Pelosi under the bus.
The back story is that there are people inside the White House who realize that on paper it makes sense for House Democrats to put forward a new face of some kind to show they're turning the page on the disastrous midterm election. Pelosi has become a lightning rod, and many Democrats went down on Tuesday night because of ads linking them to the deeply unpopular speaker.
But the political reality, which senior Democrats close to the White House admit privately, is the House Democratic Caucus doesn't exactly have that many "new faces" ready to step up and grab the bull by the horns. If Pelosi had not run for minority leader, next in line was probably Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, a veteran lawmaker who has been in the leadership for several years.
The other political reality is that while conservative Democrats like Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina would love to see one of their own rise up to run the caucus, the fact is that many of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats were wiped out earlier this week, so a candidate for leadership from that segment of the party is going to have a hard time lining up the number of votes needed to beat Pelosi.
The last thing Obama would do right now, top Democrats say privately, is back someone who is unlikely to win and cause a massive intraparty fight -- only to wind up working with Pelosi again anyway.
While all that makes sense for the White House politically, there is still risk in not pushing Pelosi out and allowing it to appear that the party has not really changed, especially coming a few days after the president had a news conference where he suggested he would not be changing course in any major way. The result of all this is that conservative Democrats are not going to be happy and a couple of them might even switch parties.
Meanwhile, Republicans are elated about Pelosi potentially staying in power. The Republican National Committee, which had a "FIRE PELOSI!" sign over its headquarters in Washington for months, has had a makeover.
The new sign says simply, "HIRE PELOSI!"