New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries arrives for a leadership election meeting with the House Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2022.
CNN  — 

Some things have changed in the two weeks since Hakeem Jeffries learned – from listening to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s speech, sitting motionless with an intentional blank expression on his face for those who were watching – that she really was going to step aside. His phone is ringing more. He’s being stopped more in the hallways of the Capitol.

On a small table in his hideaway office in the Capitol, there’s a platter of scones and a bowl of fresh raspberries as refreshments for the many guests filing in, from “squad” member Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib on Thursday evening to the law enforcement officer representatives who came in on Friday morning.

Some things are the same. Jeffries is still carefully working out in advance what he wants to say at every public appearance, delivering those rehearsed comments deliberately enough that reporters’ automated transcription programs inserts extra periods they assume must be there to fill the spaces. He’s still the cautious operator who nixed calls from colleagues in a private post-midterms meeting to jump out ahead and challenge Pelosi.

The new leader of the Democrats in the House insists that he hasn’t had time to take it in, or even to reflect on making history as the first Black leader in Congress. What matters, he said, is getting his party back to the majority in 2024 – and likely then getting himself to be speaker.

In an interview with CNN – his first with a major outlet since officially being elected to the post on Wednesday – the Brooklyn-born Democrat laid out his plan to get there, starting with hoping the president runs for reelection, in part, Jeffries said, because that would be better than an open field for Democrats trying to win against Republicans in swing districts that Joe Biden carried in 2020. He wants to pre-empt, or at least absorb, the complaints from the party’s left flank, which has expanded its footprint among House Democrats and has been suspicious of him, despite the unanimous vote he received.

And ripping into both House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Jeffries said he’s also counting on Republicans being unable to distance themselves from extremism to make the case for them.

“It’s incredible to me that even at this point in time, as they’re on their way temporarily into the majority, they have not articulated a vision for addressing the economic concerns of the American people,” Jeffries said of Republicans. “It’s because there’s a real risk that the incoming Republican majority is being hijacked by the extremists who have grown in ranks.”

The outgoing House Democratic leadership team are all in their 80s. The three members of Jeffries’ closely aligned, constantly coordinating leadership team of incoming Minority Whip Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and incoming Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar of California are so new that none were in Congress when Barack Obama was first elected. There’s a sincere buzz among many Democratic members and their aides about what the new order means. It’s coupled, though, with the silver lining of being in the minority: Jeffries will have time to learn a job that over the years some have come to believe only Pelosi could handle.

The concerns aren’t just about Jeffries’ ability to count votes. Members and Democratic operatives point to his lack of an extensive fundraising network, or of a political team with much experience outside of Brooklyn.

What he does have is two years’ worth of taking swings at Republicans at weekly news conferences, often at McCarthy – whom he tends to call just “Kevin” and insists he’s been “pretty gentle” on despite all the whacks he’s taken.

Asked whether he believes there is common ground to be found with McCarthy, who’s trying to hold off an internal revolt to be elected the new speaker, Jeffries demurred.

Asked to describe what he thinks of McCarthy, Jeffries said only, “We serve in Congress together,” and stopped talking. Asked if he respects McCarthy, Jeffries said, “I respect the fact that he is the current House Republican leader, and depending on what happens on January 3, may be the next Republican speaker.”

On Thursday, McConnell used part of a speech on the Senate floor to rip into Jeffries for being “a past election denier” because he called the 2016 election “quote, ‘illegitimate,’ and suggested that we had a quote ‘fake president,’” which a McConnell aide said was just his way of laying down a marker.

Jeffries called McConnell’s speech “unfortunate” but part of what he said is a familiar pattern of Republican attacks.

“If McConnell wants to lean into the fact that I’ve been critical of [Donald] Trump’s presidency – the overwhelming majority of the world is critical of Trump’s presidency,” Jeffries said. “That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. But he’ll do what he does, and I want to stay focused on fighting for the people.”

Jeffries offered one suggestion for common ground: restoring the enhanced child tax credit, which provided families with several hundred dollars per month for six months before expiring at the end of 2021. Some Democrats, most notably West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, opposed keeping it at the original levels.

But Jeffries said he’s ready to highlight the difference between that money, which had a transformative effect on child poverty and which boosted the middle class, and what he refers to as the “GOP tax scam” of the 2017 Republican tax cuts signed by Trump.

The enhanced child tax credit passed initially as part of the Covid-era American Rescue Plan in the spring of 2021, without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. The luxury of being in the minority, though, is being able to criticize and contrast without having to work out actual deals that his own members have to agree to.

“The job of the minority leader is to become the speaker,” said Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who quickly joined Jeffries’ advisory team as a freshman member. “There’s widespread agreement in the caucus that we’ve got a formula here for 2024: We’ve got to hang together, we’ve got to allow the GOP to audition for two years to the American people.”

A massive public shift for a committed introvert

Jeffries was in diapers when Biden was first elected to the Senate and in grade school when Chuck Schumer was first elected to the House, and he began his first term in the New York State Assembly the same year Pelosi first won as speaker.

But as pointed out by many in a caucus where even millennials are starting to rack up seniority, it’s less a question of age than of life experience and sensibility. Jeffries was a teenager in Brooklyn during the crack epidemic. By the time he first arrived in Washington, Twitter had already ended a few politicians’ careers. His two public employee parents named him Hakeem and his brother Hasan, but he came of age and into politics thinking more about tackling systemic racism than marching in the civil rights movement.

The younger brother grew up to be a noted professor of Black history. Jeffries is now the highest-ranking Black politician ever in America, other than Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, in a building with a foundation laid by slaves. The head of the most diverse leadership team in the history of Congress, Jeffries stepped in when an African dance troupe invited him to join them at a Juneteenth celebration back home last summer. He is a regular at services at the Cornerstone Baptist Church back home.

Yet in a conversation the night before his unanimous election last week, the intensely private congressman repeatedly insisted to several skeptical reporters that he really hadn’t spent much time thinking about making history. He’d been too busy nailing down votes, dealing with lame-duck session priorities and preparing to move into the minority.

Asked whether in the new role he would prioritize some of the criminal justice reform efforts that have been a cause since he was a state legislator, Jeffries spoke about a focus on rebuilding economic access to the American dream, whether that meant addressing the drop in unionization or the rise in automation.

People can misread Jeffries’s heart because of his style, said Rev. Al Sharpton, who has known the congressman for two decades and called his election as House minority leader “an embodiment of the dream of Black political power we’ve had second only to the president of the United States.”

“He is an activist, but he has always said, ‘I’m the guy to go inside the room – I’m not the guy to go to jail and be handcuffed,’” Sharpton said. “But we can trust him in the room. His ambition never outran his agenda.”

Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who, in 2020, won a primary from the left against a longtime incumbent New Yorker whom Jeffries had endorsed, said he’s excited to have the new perspective at the helm. He downplayed progressive complaints from the past.

“For the most part, he believes what I believe,” Bowman said. “So now it’s a question of how to make that work.”

Some hope his elevation means a higher priority on urban issues, but Jeffries has been pushing to think in terms of what it takes to win enough seats to govern.

“We have to show up in unexpected places, show up early, engage in authentic conversations and then deliver results,” he said, pledging to do some of that showing-up personally through “on the ground conversations with Americans throughout the country – in the heartland, in Appalachia and in rural America.”

Finding a place for Pelosi

Pelosi is such a presence that even those who were helping Jeffries prepare for her departure struggle to imagine life without her involved.

“What do you do if you have a guru? You go sit down at her knee and say, ‘Here’s what’s going on, what do you think?’” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who’s been working with Jeffries for years.

In response, a Pelosi spokesperson pointed CNN to her line from before Thanksgiving, when she said she has “no intention of being the mother-in-law in the kitchen, saying, ‘My son doesn’t like the stuffing that way. This is the way we make it.’”

Pelosi was serious, the spokesperson said: The caucus voted to officially designate her “speaker emerita,” but she really is planning to step back. Many of her colleagues, along with most political players back in San Francisco, believe she wants to help position her daughter, Christine, to succeed her in Congress. They speculate that may mean she’ll spend a lot of time in the district instead, building back bridges.

Jeffries said he is not planning on keeping the kind of international schedule Pelosi did, especially in recent years, when she would pop over to Europe or Asia on weekends. He acknowledges that he doesn’t have anything like Pelosi’s depth of friendship with Biden, which has made her someone the president has often relied on.

Jeffries has talked about having a more open leadership style. Democrats in the House rave about how every time they’re in their chamber to vote, they get checked in on by either Jeffries, Clark or Aguilar. But many still struggle to name what they think his own policy priorities are, what motivates him or how he makes decisions.

Asked directly why he wanted to be leader, Jeffries said only, “I just look forward to the opportunity to do the most good for the greatest number of people possible for as long as I have the opportunity to do so and can operate at the highest level.”

In the meantime, Jeffries is still wrapping his head around his new life, which will soon involve being trailed around by an official security detail from the US Capitol Police.

“I’m just taking the approach of what has to be done today, what has to be done tomorrow, what has to be done this week, what has to be done this month? And then what has to be done to be successful over the next few years?” he said, explaining that he finds that to be “the only way to approach this without suffering from high anxiety.”