President-elect Joe Biden has picked Neera Tanden, President & Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progress, to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget. If confirmed, she will be the first woman of colour and the first South Asian to head the OMB, as well as the Indian-American with the highest position in the administration – after Vice President Kamala Harris, of course.
But that is a big ‘if’. Tanden has proven to be the most controversial of Biden’s picks so far, for both the left and the right: Many conservatives feel she is too progressive and too partisan, while liberals have labelled her too conservative. Tanden’s unfiltered use of social media has gained her both fans and enemies. While Democrats have praised her activism, Republicans have accused her of being combative.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Tanden is a political veteran and served as healthcare adviser in former US President Barack Obama administration — playing an important role in developing his healthcare plan that came to be known as Obamacare — as well as on the presidential campaigns of many Democratic candidates including Bill Clinton in 1992 and Hillary Clinton in both 2008 and 2016.
As director of the OMB she will be responsible for the administration’s spending and policy plans. Tanden was raised by a single mother and relied on food stamps and rental housing assistance, which the Biden-Harris administration highlighted as the foundation for how her policies will be designed to support working families.
Tanden has been a vocal critic of both Biden and Obama. Among her supporters is Hillary Clinton, who threw her a wedding shower at the White House and with whom shared a close working relationship. She first served Clinton as policy advisor to the first lady, and continued to work with her until 2016.
According to the WikiLeaks archive of the emails Clinton sent on her private server, the former secretary of state taped a video in support of Tanden winning the former newspaper India Abroad’s Person of the Year award. In another email to Hillary Clinton, she apologised for saying in a New Yorker article that Obama’s primary campaign in 2012 attacked Clinton’s character. Clinton replied with “Well, the truth can hurt, can’t it? I hope it doesn’t cause you any problems, my friend.” Tanden ended the exchange with a “Miss you, Hillary.”
The Centre for American Progress and Tanden have not responded to Scroll.in’s request for a comment.
Most infamously, Tanden reportedly punched Faiz Shakir, a policy advisor who would go on to become campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, after he asked Clinton a tough question on the Iraq War in 2008.
Clinton had supported the war, a position that she preferred to downlplay during the Democratic primaries, and Shakir’s question was unexpected at an event that was otherwise favourable to the then candidate. Tanden has claimed that she didn’t punch him, she only “pushed him”.
In order to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Tanden will have to be confirmed by the Senate.
She faces a tough crowd: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham labelled her a “nut job,” while Senator John Cornyn called her selection “radioactive.” She hasn’t minced her words when it comes to Republican politicians either, having referred to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell as “Moscow Mitch.” Since her nomination was announced on November 30, she has deleted over 1,000 tweets.
“The concern I have is both judgment, based on the tweets that I’ve been shown, just in the last 24 hours… and it’s the partisan nature,” said Rob Portman, a Republic Senator likely to lead one of the panels that would have to confirme Tanden and a former Office of Management and Budget director, according to the Washington Post. “Of all the jobs, that’s one where I think you would need to be careful not to have someone who’s overtly partisan.”
Of course, that characterisation from Republicans appars remarkable considering the fact that the current President, Donald Trump, used much more partisan and derogatory language than the words Tanden has used in her Twitter posts. Trump continues to use the medium to spout unfounded claims about having actually won the election – none of which has been condemned by the Republican leadership, who spent the last few years claiming not to have seen the president’s tweets.
But Tanden will also face pushback from her own side of the aisle.
Tanden helped found the Center for American Progress in 2003, and has played several roles at the organisation before assuming leadership in 2011. As head, she shut down its progressive site ThinkProgress, known for its climate change coverage, because it wasn’t profitable. She has also advocated cutting social security and other “entitlement programs”, a position that is at odds with the progressive arm of the party.
In 2018, Tanden drew ire for accidentally naming and outing the survivor of a sexual harassment case at CAP — which employees said served as an example of how the organisation failed to handle incidents sensitively.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ former press secretary, Brianna Joy Gray, tweeted that Tanden embodies “everything toxic about the corporate Democratic Party.”
Tanden has opposed Medicare for All, and is critical of Sanders, who will be the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee that will hold Tanden’s confirmation hearing. Sanders has also accused CAP and Tanden of “belittling progressive ideas” in 2019, and expressed concern over the group’s corporate funding and their repeated smearing of politicians like Senator Cory Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren, which he said undermines party unity.
Despite these, both Booker and Warren have expressed their support for Tanden.
Indeed, many have welcomed Tanden’s nomination, in spite of the controversy that it has appeared to provoke. Groups like South Asians for Biden, in particular, have welcomed the selection as a reflection of American diversity.
“South Asians for Biden is thrilled with the selection of Neera Tanden to serve as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget,” said Neha Dewan, national director of South Asians for Biden, in a press release. “President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris expressed the importance of having every American’s voice heard and represented in the administration, and Tanden’s selection to serve in such a high profile role confirms this commitment.”
Neil Makhija, Executive Director of the leading Indian American advocacy and political action committee, issued a similar statement. “In Neera Tanden, President-elect Biden has chosen an ideal partner to restore the American dream because she has lived it,” he said.