President Joe Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget was considered an affront to progressives who were initially relieved by other top personnel choices.
But at the time, it was an open question whether she’d even get a Senate hearing.
Before Democrats reclaimed the Senate, some on the left speculated that if Republicans remained in control of the upper chamber, Tanden wouldn’t have much of a shot at getting confirmed. Equally reviled by many in the GOP and her party’s own left flank, the think tank CEO and prolifically bombastic Twitter user would ultimately be thwarted, was the thinking late last year, leaving Biden to recast a new department head.
After Democratic victories in the pair of Georgia runoff elections unexpectedly flipped the Senate, Tanden’s path to a successful confirmation became more realistic, but not without some apparent cleanup.
“Over the last few years, it’s been part of my role to be in and passionate,” Tanden said, referencing her job leading the Center for American Progress (CAP) during her opening remarks to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “I know there have been some concerns about some of my past language and social media, and I regret that language and take responsibility for it.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a former OMB director himself, criticized Tanden’s extensive social media history slamming Republicans early in the hearing. “Typically, the OMB director is not a partisan. In particular, because you have to have these kinds of relationships, I’m concerned your personal attacks about specific senators will make it more difficult.”
“How do you plan to mend fences with members of Congress you have attacked?” Portman asked.
The Daily Beast first reported in November that Tanden deleted many of her more controversial tweets about high-profile elected officials, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who was majority leader at the time she removed them.
“I recognize that concern. I deeply regret, and apologize for my language and some of my past life,” Tanden said. “I recognize that this role is a bipartisan role. And I know I have to earn the trust of senators across the board. I will work very aggressively to meet that concern.” Tanden acknowledged that she deleted the posts.
(Left unsaid was that the previous occupant of the post, Russell Vought, a former Republican operative, once served as the head of Heritage Action for America, the political arm of right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation).
While Tanden fielded some tough questions from conservatives in her initial confirmation hearing, the more daunting one may come on Wednesday in the Senate Budget Committee, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is chairman.
In 2016, Tanden took an outwardly oppositional stance to Sanders as he mounted an inconvenient primary challenge to Hillary Clinton, her close ally and former boss.
“You’re making Bernie Sanders shepherd her through after the things she said about him and the things she said about the movement?” said Pete D’Alessandro, who directed Sanders’ first presidential campaign in Iowa. “That’s kind of a slap.”
Tanden famously criticized ardent leftists on Twitter, while Sanders’ fans often shot back against her own centrist-style politics that embraces corporate money. Shortly after Tanden was unveiled as the choice to lead the OMB, progressives balked at the notion of putting her in charge of the crucial financial office. But it wasn’t until control of Congress changed that an elevated Tanden became more likely.
“She was so vitriolic throughout all of '15 and '16 and into this campaign,” said a former adviser to Sanders in 2016, where Tanden focused most of her ire. “She now has built, within her own party, thousands, millions of enemies out there who are just laying in wait.”
“She’s going to have to take whatever tweaks come her way and roll,” the former adviser said.
With new control of Capitol Hill also comes more influence for Sanders. So far, he has been tight-lipped about what to expect from his questioning of Tanden or her involvement with CAP. He told Punchbowl News in late January that “it’s going on” but did not elaborate.
“If you’re Bernie Sanders, you could probably stop this if you wanted to,” D’Alessandro said. “The fact that he hasn’t said that, or his people haven’t said, ‘This is something we’re really going to look into,’ tells me that the way we might view it as supporters, it hasn’t risen to that level to him.”
A spokesperson for Sanders did not respond to a request for comment about his planned approach.
Still, not all Democrats are fretting about potentially promoting Tanden. Other Senate Democrats, including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), initially lauded Biden’s historic choice of Tanden—who would be the only woman of color to lead the agency—an approval that was echoed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and even some outside groups on the left.
“If confirmed, Neera Tanden's high praise of the Green New Deal must be actualized into concrete policy,” said Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement. Tanden, whose climate views have evolved over time, once wrote a statement for CAP in 2019 arguing, “America has a choice to make: We can come together to create high-quality jobs in the industries of the future, protect our communities from extreme weather and economic damage, and build a better and more equitable country for our children and grandchildren—or we can stick our heads in the sand.”
Clinton alums have also expressed a fondness for Tanden and confidence in her ability to navigate the nuances of the agency. “Look, Neera is really good at policy and she’s not great at campaign politics,” a longtime friend of Tanden told The Daily Beast. “Her entering the political fray more than she ever had in previous cycles, I would not use as a litmus test as to the success that she will have in her ability to work with Bernie Sanders moving forward.”
Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think tank Third Way who served in the White House under former President Bill Clinton, praised Tanden’s policy credentials and urged progressives to put aside old primary grievances.
“Running OMB requires a deep understanding of how the federal government operates and how the president’s policies can best be implemented. Neera is a brilliant policy analyst, and she is deeply experienced making government work,” Bennett said. “Some on the left may have been on a different side in the intra-party debates of the past, including the 2016 primaries. While those can be bruising, I hope they will let it go.”