Standing onstage in December at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, Joe Biden described his freshly nominated pick to run the White House budget office, Neera Tanden, as “brilliant.” He cited her hardscrabble upbringing. And he even quoted his father to emphasize her set of values.
“Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget. I’ll tell you what you value,” he said. “That’s what you’re going to do for us, Neera.”
The President-elect seemed confident, as did Tanden when she spoke a few minutes later, that she would soon be ensconced in the Office of Management and Budget suite next door to the West Wing.
But behind the scenes — on Capitol Hill, in Democratic circles and even among some of Biden’s allies — few shared the bullish outlook. Tanden’s history of sharp-edged tweets about Republicans and Democrats alike made her a polarizing figure. And at the time, it wasn’t even clear Democrats would control the Senate.
Three months later, Tanden’s nomination has cratered.
The slow collapse, drawn out over weeks, came to a conclusion late Tuesday, when the White House announced Tanden had withdrawn her nomination to avoid further distraction. In his own statement, Biden said he would still award her a position in his administration, albeit one that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.
The person viewed as a leading contender to be nominated in Tanden’s place — Shalanda Young, Biden’s pick to be deputy OMB director — had breezed through a confirmation hearing on Tuesday, earning praise even from conservative Republicans.
A lesson for the Biden White House
The selection of Tanden, a close friend of White House chief of staff Ron Klain, may offer an instructive, forward-looking lesson for the seasoned Biden administration: Despite decades of political experience in Washington, they are now operating under razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress in a capital still very much unsettled by the Trump era.
Tanden’s downfall amounts to the first real stumble for the new team, which has still seen the bulk of Biden’s Cabinet selections approved by wide bipartisan majorities. All recent presidents have had one or more of their nominees fail. It took President Barack Obama, for example, three attempts to find a commerce secretary and two tries to get a health and human services secretary confirmed. By the time he departed office, President Donald Trump had all but given up on making high-profile nominations at all, preferring to name acting secretaries instead.
Since the moment of her nomination on December 1, Tanden worked to allay the skepticism about her selection — from Democrats and Republicans alike. For much of the last three months, she met with 46 different senators, officials said, offering apologies and explanations for her salty, and often offensive, tweets that she blasted out during Trump’s tenure. The fact that the downfall of Tanden’s nomination was her Twitter account is an ironic turn of events given the vitriol that often spewed from the former President on the same platform before he was suspended earlier this year.
“I deeply regret and apologize for my language and some of my past language,” Tanden said at her confirmation hearing last month, a recognition that she still had work to do to win the hearts and minds of the senators who would determine her fate.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Even more, an administration official told CNN, the political capital being spent trying to salvage her confirmation is needed on trying to thread the complicated needle among Democrats to pass the Covid-19 relief bill in the Senate.
The episode underscores the governing constraints facing Biden despite enjoying Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. And it illustrates what some Biden allies describe as overconfidence by the President and his chief of staff — who was instrumental in pushing for Tanden’s selection — in managing a delicate political reality on Capitol Hill.
Tanden’s nomination was effectively scuttled by a single centrist Democrat: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose statement of opposition last month on a Friday afternoon sent the White House scrambling and provided an early warning of how a single vote can thwart Biden’s legislative agenda. Manchin cited Tanden’s “overtly partisan statements,” which he said would create toxicity between the White House and Capitol Hill.
Spending political capital
Manchin’s skepticism opened the door to more, but the White House insisted it wasn’t over for Tanden yet. And at Klain’s urging, the administration continued pushing for her to be confirmed, even as it became ever clearer she would not gain enough support.
Officials sought to highlight backing from moderate Republicans outside of Congress, including former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. And they repeatedly pointed to her historic credentials — she would have been the first woman of South Asian descent to run OMB — as evidence of her worthiness for confirmation.
One official said the White House wanted to demonstrate it would fight for its nominees, even though many inside the building acknowledged Tanden’s nomination was likely doomed. The official said it would have looked weak had Biden caved, particularly because the main criticism of Tanden — that her tweets were cruel — could be viewed as sexist.
“Let me be clear: We’re going to get Neera Tanden confirmed. That’s what we’re working for,” Klain said during an appearance on MSNBC last week.
He was not alone in his desire to keep pushing; Biden himself was on board, as were other senior advisers, according to people familiar with the matter.
“We’re going to push,” Biden said last month, even as it became clear the door to confirmation was closing. “We still think there’s a shot, a good shot.”
Still, inside the administration, Klain was viewed as Tanden’s strongest advocate and the most ardent voice in pushing to continue her nomination.
“Ron is not a dispassionate observer here,” a senior Democrat who has previously worked with Klain told CNN last week, ahead of Tanden’s withdrawal, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. “He selected Neera and doesn’t want this to fail.”
Yet the troubling signs continued. Multiple aides told CNN that Biden’s team was leaning so confidently into the idea of their party falling in line on nominations that minimal outreach was conducted to convince moderate Republicans to vote for Tanden.
On Wednesday last week, the two committees that had been scheduled to hold votes on Tanden’s nomination abruptly delayed them. But it was not Republicans causing the holdup; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist Democrat from Arizona, refused to say how she would vote, and the committee did not want to risk moving forward without knowing the outcome.
The nomination appeared finally dead after Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska, signaled to the White House that — despite a one-on-one meeting where issues related to her state had been discussed in detail — she would not support Tanden’s nomination.
Speaking in the moments after Tanden’s withdrawal was announced, Murkowski did not seem surprised.
“It was kind of going that direction,” she said, going on to describe how she had shown Tanden maps of Alaska’s tribal lands during their highly anticipated meeting.
In trouble from the start
It wasn’t how Biden, Tanden or Klain had envisioned things going three months ago.
When Tanden was selected, the Biden transition team had believed Republicans would control the Senate, which made her nomination even more confounding. But at the time, Biden and his aides leaned heavily into her background, including how she had been raised by a single mother who came to the United States from India.
“I’m here today because of social programs,” Tanden said on the day of her nomination, standing onstage near Biden in Wilmington. “Because of budgetary choices. Because of a government that saw my mother’s dignity, and gave her a chance.”
Yet one of the biggest roadblocks to confirmation came after the Georgia runoff races effectively handed control of the Senate to Democrats, which suddenly made Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, the leader of the Budget Committee.
Tanden and Sanders had tangled publicly for years, dating back to the 2016 presidential campaign, when she worked as a top adviser to Hillary Clinton. Sanders blamed Tanden, among other establishment Democrats, for his loss in the primary race.
Until the final moments on Tuesday, Sanders had not embraced her as Biden’s nominee to lead OMB.
“Neera Tanden does not have the votes, so we’ll have to see what happens in the future,” Sanders told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer shortly before the White House pulled her nomination.
When pressed for his position, Sanders replied, “I’ll make that decision when the vote takes place.”