Neera Tanden will not be the next director of the Office of Management and Budget. The Biden administration quietly withdrew Tanden’s nomination last night, finally facing up to the daunting odds of her being confirmed.
Accounts of this ill-fated nomination vary. Some on the right see Tanden as a sacrifice to distract from the greater threat of HHS nominee Xavier Becerra, described by Nebraska’s Ben Sasse as a ‘culture war supersoldier’. The press, inclined to view the world through a Kremlinological lens, interprets it as an indictment of White House chief of staff Ron Klain’s leadership. Klain was by all accounts Tanden’s biggest supporter in the West Wing and shares many of her conspiratorial and bombastic tendencies, especially on Twitter.
Predictably, the Biden administration has flogged baseless complaints about anti-Asian racism and misogyny, which they see expressed in a double standard about uncouth tweeting. How in a post-Trump era, they ask, can we hold anyone accountable for what they say online after midnight?
Yet Tanden’s nomination did not fail because of her tweets. A treasure trove of wine-fueled, Russophobic madness, they turned off many Republican senators to be sure. Yet according to the Washington Post, Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the sole remaining potential pro-Tanden GOP vote, had not given the White House an answer when the nomination was pulled.
Instead Democratic senators expressed private dismay, with many reluctant to vote for Tanden until she had 50 votes in the bank — a tall order in an evenly divided Senate after West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin announced that he could not vote to confirm.
Democrats, not Republicans, sank Neera Tanden. They did so because of trust, not tweets.
As a practical matter, the OMB director has two jobs: regulatory preclearance and budgeting. Both require trust on Capitol Hill, especially among senators and representatives in the president’s party.
Preclearance is a fancy word for politically screening the flood of regulations that emerge from executive agencies to make sure they don’t hurt important constituencies. Functionally this means balancing interests within the president’s party by being an honest broker between the legislators and organizational leaders who seek to advance specific causes or interests.
Tanden has a bad reputation in DC. She’s seen as self-interested and vindictive, with few deep commitments beyond loyalty to her paymasters at any given moment. Few people trust her word and for good reason. She is a hatchet-woman, not a negotiator.
Beyond these temperamental shortcomings, Tanden has no head for policy. She ran the Center for American Progress, nominally a think tank, as an ersatz cadet branch of the Obama administration’s communications operation. Post-Obama she defaulted to the interests of her donors, which ranged from defense contractors to Fortune 500 companies to Gulf petro-states. Left to her own devices, she has shown terrible policy judgment: a leaked 2011 email reveals Tanden arguing for appropriating Libyan oil as compensation for overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi.
On the budgeting front, unlike in a parliamentary system, America’s divided system requires Congress and the executive to collaborate to fund the government. The OMB director plays a critical role as the hinge between the branches in this badly broken process, a tricky business even during periods of single-party control.
When the president proposes a federal budget to the Congress, it serves as a point of departure for public, bipartisan and fractious negotiations. The OMB director signs off on the White House budget proposal and thus becomes the face of the administration in budget negotiations.
Congressional Democrats hoping to advance the Biden administration’s priorities need the OMB director’s numbers to be ambitious but credible. If the numbers are not substantively and politically defensible, legislators find themselves on the proverbial back foot — especially if the Congressional Budget Office’s nonpartisan budget estimates diverge widely from the White House’s estimates. In extreme cases individual members in swing states and districts may defy the White House to distinguish themselves from a national party whose popularity swoons locally.
The need for trust on both regulating and budgeting is why the OMB director requires Senate confirmation, unlike the overwhelming majority of jobs in the Executive Office of the President. In the final analysis, Democratic senators couldn’t trust Tanden.
The most baffling aspect of this whole drama is how damned predictable it was. Tanden was always going to be hard to confirm precisely because a long career as a hatchet-woman does not an OMB director make. Yet the White House limped out of the gate, seemingly surprised by pushback to their grossly unqualified nominee.
Tanden also did little to help herself. She was slow to reach out to senators in either party, preferring instead to lean on her biography and identity. These claims reaffirmed for Republicans that Tanden would practice the same hack cynicism at OMB she has exercised elsewhere. Called to testify, she had to recant most of her incendiary tweets, ironically only reaffirming for senators that she will say anything that the moment requires.
That Biden and Klain picked Tanden and clung to her doomed nomination this long raises serious questions about their grasp of the executive branch. Both men have spent a lifetime in government, but neither as a track record of administrative success or sound policy judgment. By his own admission, Klain mishandled his role as pandemic czar under Obama. Biden, ostensibly a global statesman, has missed every foreign policy issue in his half-century career — voting against the first Gulf War and for the second one, to take but one example.
Biden ran as a steady hand on the rudder, ably guiding the ship of state. These may be early days, but to date he has seemed more Joseph Hazelwood than David Farragut.