Denied OMB Chair, she assumes the role of senior adviser to the president. It’s not as flashy. But it may give her more influence, insiders say.
When Neera Tanden assumed a role as senior adviser at the White House last week, after her bid for a Cabinet post went off the rails, it was viewed as a consolation prize.
In reality, Tanden may have just stepped into a more quietly powerful position: entering President Joe Biden’s inner sanctum and avoiding the scrutiny from her detractors that would have come with a more public-facing role.
As senior adviser, Tanden is now among a small, select circle of advisers in the White House. She’s included in daily briefings. She’s one of a half dozen senior advisers and one of two senior advisers of color. And her close relationship to chief of staff Ron Klain means she’ll have his ear.
That proximity to power is a trade-off from the undoubted influence she would have wielded as Biden’s budget director at the Office of Management and Budget, where she would have had large sway over budget and regulatory policy. But it also means she’s free of the headaches that can come with the responsibilities of acting as a Cabinet secretary, like grillings from oversight committees or sparring with Senate members with whom she had previously clashed.
“While I believe she was singularly well-qualified to run OMB, her role as senior adviser to the president will give her the platform and opportunity to render tremendous service to the public,” said John Podesta, a longtime Tanden ally who founded the Center for American Progress, the think tank Tanden ran before leaving for the White House.
On the more immediate front, the White House is turning to Tanden — who served as a health care adviser in the Obama administration — to help handle potential fallout from an impending Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Should the 6-3 conservative majority court strike down portions of the massive health care law, the Biden administration would likely have to quickly mount a vigorous effort to restore and salvage a system Democrats view as critical to providing health care access to millions and one of their biggest policy achievements in decades.
While at CAP, Tanden helped mobilize opposition to then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the ACA. The White House brought on Tanden now, saying the stakes are similarly high with an impending SCOTUS decision.
“Especially after the country has fought so hard to make this progress overcoming the pandemic, the stakes of the Supreme Court case on the ACA couldn’t be higher,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement to POLITICO. “Having millions of Americans lose their healthcare or covid declared a preexisting condition would be horrible, especially during an historic public health crisis. And the President knew that Neera brought the right policy and outreach credentials, and initiative and leadership, to take the reins of this important project planning for potential outcomes of that case, as well as ensuring the federal government’s approach to online accessibility is what it needs to be in the 21st Century.”
Another White House official described Tanden’s role as similar to how senior adviser Gene Sperling was hired to take point on the American Rescue Plan.
There will be complications that come with a senior adviser role. The post can be limiting because there are sometimes ill-defined responsibilities and limited staff, said Jennifer Palmieri, a former Obama White House communications director and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign spokesperson. She didn’t think that was a worry with Tanden, who’s navigated those waters before.
“A White House senior advisor can have enormous influence, if you know how to leverage it right and navigate the larger bureaucracy,“ Palmieri said. “This is Neera’s third White House, second time around as a policy adviser working on health care. She knows how to leverage the role to have a big impact.”
In addition to serving in Obama’s White House, Tanden worked in Bill Clinton’s White House as associate director for domestic policy. Her relationship with Klain goes back to the Clinton White House days. “She’s very close to Ron, there’s a lot of mutual respect there,” Palmieri said.
In the current White House, Tanden’s portfolio — which, in addition to prepping for the Supreme Court’s health care decision, includes helping the U.S. Digital Service upgrade government web sites and digitize agency services — is expected to grow. Historically, White House senior advisers have taken on a range of roles, offering messaging and strategic advice to the president, and leading special projects.
“I think over time she’ll be in there and work on other things and I would be surprised if it doesn’t grow into something meaningful because she’s talented and they need help,” said Shekar Narasimhan, chair of the AAPI Victory Fund, who saw Tanden last week at the White House. “I suspect her responsibilities grow over time, not the other way around.”
Tanden’s bid to become OMB director rankled senators who complained she was a political lightning rod and fierce partisan — especially on social media, where she targeted individual senators in highly-personal tweets.
But her withdrawal left Asian American activists and interest groups miffed, arguing she was unfairly targeted because of her gender and race. Tanden is the daughter of Indian immigrants.
After Tanden withdrew her nomination, the White House elevated deputy OMB director Shalanda Young, who is Black, to the acting director position. The White House has given assurances to various elected officials and interest groups that Young will become the permanent OMB director, several sources say. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including influential Biden ally Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), advocated for Young before Tanden was even nominated.
Asian American activists, who were frustrated that Biden failed to name an Asian American as one of his 15 Cabinet secretaries, plan to continue to push for one. Asian Americans have served in presidential Cabinets, including Donald Trump’s, since 2000.
As of now, Katherine Tai, the United States Trade Representative, and Vice President Kamala Harris are the only Asian Americans in Cabinet-level jobs in the Biden administration.
“When a vacancy arises — and you and I know in a four-year term there will be vacancies in the Cabinet whether that happens next year or the year after — we would be absolutely pressing hard for that to be filled by a qualified Asian-American,” Narasimhan said. “It’s not over yet. Are we holding grudges? No. We are just anticipating and waiting for the next vacancy to come before we all coalesce and say 'hey, it’s our turn too.'"
Asian American groups are advocating for Nani Coloretti, a former Obama deputy secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to be named as OMB director. Coloretti would be the first American of Filipino descent to be nominated to a Cabinet-level position. She’s currently senior vice president of the Urban Institute think tank.
An OMB nominee is expected to be named in the next two weeks, following the release of the budget Friday, according to two people familiar with the plans.
Even as AAPI groups push for more Cabinet representation, they acknowledge that having Tanden in the White House is a major benefit.
“We are thrilled to have Neera Tanden as someone from our community, a highly qualified South Asian woman and policy leader, represented at the highest levels of government who we very much much hope will serve as someone in the West Wing who elevates the issues we all care about,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of IMPACT, an Indian-American advocacy group that has been in touch with Tanden.
“Neera clearly faced a double standard,” Makhija said. “I hope that some understand that we are a community of color and deserve affirmative steps to increase our representation. I recognize that we have work to do to build power. ... There needs to be deliberate effort to support our representation, as is the case for all communities or color.”
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/28/neera-tanden-white-house-biden-491304