First, there was surprise. Then flashes of anger. But most progressive allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders have quietly resigned themselves – or even offered some modest public support – to Neera Tanden following President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to tap their longtime nemesis for a Cabinet-level job.
For years, Tanden, Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, has feuded – most frequently and famously on Twitter, where she is prolific and pointed – with Sanders supporters. Those clashes have occasionally pitted her against personal allies of the Vermont senator and tapped into the left’s frustrations with the internal practices of the liberal think tank she’s led for nearly a decade.
By the time she was introduced by Biden on Tuesday, alongside other senior members of his economic team, Tanden’s path to Senate confirmation already seemed in some peril – but not because of dissent from the left. The pugilistic president of the Center for American Progress and longtime aide to Hillary Clinton has punched both ways during her long political career. Some Senate Republicans were quick to highlight her past attacks on the right as a reason they might oppose her confirmation.
But among progressive leaders, her nomination set off more confusion than anger. It also complicated their efforts to balance grassroots work with efforts to engage and influence Biden’s team. Once the initial shock subsided, though, sighs of relief were the more prominent sounds – the left’s concerns that Biden might select a committed deficit hawk as his budget director had overwhelmed its widespread personal distaste for Tanden.
“Neera Tanden is not a pick progressives would have chosen, but she’s better than (former Biden chief of staff) Bruce Reed,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement. “Tanden’s on the record over the past several years pushing back against nonsensical worries about the deficit.”
A former senior staffer for Sanders said that, while the nomination might have unsettled some progressives during this “trust-building period” with Biden, their energies should remain focused on pressuring the President-elect and his inner circle – and trust that Tanden will be a team player once she steps into the job.
“As long as we’re able to keep the White House itself on (our side), she will do the work to implement what they demand,” the former Sanders staffer said of Tanden. “It’s really about us being able to have that robust movement. As long as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fighting for these issues, then Neera will be there, too.”
One top official at a leading progressive organization said Tanden was viewed by many on the left as less ideological than partisan, and suggested that a fight over her nomination – especially given CAP’s actual policy positions – would be a waste of political capital.
“CAP has put out policies that are to the left of Biden on several issues, such as child care, such as health care, such as inequality,” the official said. “Biden could’ve gone to (more progressive think tanks like) Roosevelt Institute or Demos, but the balance of power is much more strongly in the CAP camp. That’s an improvement from the Third Way camp or the Rahm Emanuel camp or Larry Summers world.”
CAP’s acceptance of donations from the financial industry and relatively modest but controversial contributions from the United Arab Emirates, as part of a relationship it publicly cut off in 2019, has been a bone of contention for years. But there is no broad push to sink Tanden’s nomination – at least in part because of concerns over who might be next down the list.
Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee joked that his initial reaction to her selection was that “it was beautiful to have a poster in the Cabinet,” a wink at her occasionally chaotic social media presence.
But his ultimate judgment was a pragmatic one.
“If people look past whatever their Twitter grievances are, they will recognize that a band of possible outcomes became reality in March. And then were further narrowed in November,” McElwee said. “And within that band of possible outcomes, Tanden is, I think, one of the better outcomes.”
Biden and his growing communications shop have focused their case for Tanden on the historic nature of her nomination – she would be the first South Asian American and first woman of color to run OMB – and formative years.
“I’ve known Neera for a long time – a brilliant policy mind with critical practical experience across government,” Biden said when he introduced her on Tuesday. “She was raised by a single mom on food stamps, an immigrant from India who struggled, worked hard, and did everything she could for her daughter to live out her American dream.”
Liberal favorites like California Rep. Barbara Lee, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams and progressive economist Robert Reich have all publicly backed Tanden. So, too, has Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her allies.
One name is missing from the list: Sanders himself. He and his inner circle have been notably silent on the matter. Former Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who worked for – and clashed with – Tanden during his seven years at CAP, along with Sanders’ Senate office and his outside spokesman all declined to comment.
Tanden did not respond to a request for comment.
The public hostilities between Sanders’ team and Tanden peaked in the spring of 2019, early on in the 2020 Democratic primary process, when Sanders sent a letter to the boards of CAP and the CAP Action Fund accusing the liberal think tank of playing a “destructive role” in the “critical mission to defeat Donald Trump.” Sanders and his campaign’s ire had been piqued by a video, published by the now defunct, CAP-sponsored website ThinkProgress, which highlighted his relatively new status as a millionaire and implied that it undermined his economic message.
ThinkProgress editors pushed back against the suggestion CAP leaders were influencing its editorial process. Shakir, who defended the site’s “editorial freedom” when he was running it, said during the flap that “even the drafting and publishing of (that defense) wasn’t ‘independent.’ Happy to talk to any journalists who want to discuss ‘editorial independence’ if that’s the debate they want to have.”
But for the Sanders team, the question of ThinkProgress’ editorial standards was almost beside the point. The letter was a shot across the bow designed to put Tanden on notice.
“Center for American Progress leader Neera Tanden repeatedly calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas,” Sanders wrote. “I worry that the corporate money CAP is receiving is inordinately and inappropriately influencing the role it is playing in the progressive movement.”
The gambit appeared to be successful.
After a short and pointed back-and-forth, the high-level hostilities between Sanders’ inner orbit and Tanden subsided. Exactly a year after the campaign’s letter became public, and less than a week following his departure from the primary and endorsement of Biden, Tanden heaped praise on Sanders – in a tweet.
“I am so incredibly grateful,” she wrote, “for the fantastic leadership @SenSanders is showing to unite the whole party in the battle against Trump in the fall.”