Neera Tanden’s Nomination to a High Office – An Honor or a Let-Down?

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California – Biden’s first set of nominations to serve in his administration seem to be female dominated, which can be lauded as progressive. But it could also suggest Biden’s reluctance to not ruffle his coalition’s feathers. A psychologist may well interpret it as Biden’s desire to exclude contesting male presence which could be harder to maneuver or could eventually threaten his candidacy for his second term. But that is a bridge too far for us to worry about.

Many of Biden’s nominees are women, among them a few ethnic Indian women, which is a source of pride and celebration for the Indian community in the US. While one welcomes that gratifying gesture from Biden who in an earlier campaign took flak for demeaning immigrant Indians for their accent, it is necessary to look beyond ethnic rewards to the underlying value of the nominees and of their nomination. Neera Tanden is one nominee whose inclusion has met with a mixed response.

Born to immigrant Indian parents whose marriage ended in divorce when Tanden was five years old, she was reared singularly by her mother, who was forced to rely on public welfare for a while. The memory of this experience is what makes Tanden’s commitment to state support for vulnerable children and women unwavering, and importantly, not academic but empirical.

Rep. Haley Stevens, a longtime associate of Tanden, echoes the above when she points out that Tanden “knows how to take on inequality and how best to marshal public resources to help people.” “As the first woman of color and first Indian-American to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera’s nomination is an exciting moment for our country,” Stevens gushes, “Neera will be dedicated to making sure the federal government works for every American.”

From being raised partially on food stamps and public housing to being asked to serve as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is an impressive and heady whirlwind ride for a “woman of color.” (I feel uncomfortable using that epithet for Indians as it seems to undermine the centuries of pain experienced by those truly of color, i.e., Blacks in America).

Doubtless, her grit combined with talent accounts for her impressive successes. A Yale Law degree surely endowed her with the necessary aura, credentials, and network to break into the upper echelons of power. After working on several Democratic presidential campaigns, including those of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama recognition of her expertise as a policy work led to her appointment as senior adviser to the Health and Human Services Department in the Obama administration. There, she helped to formulate Obama’s lead legislative initiative – the affordable healthcare law. A fierce and fearless defender of the law as well as of her patron, she became a frequent fiery presence on TV channels as well as on Twitter.

In 2003, after joining the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, she served in different capacities ending up as its president and CEO. If her nomination to the OMB is confirmed i.e., approved by the Senate, that will catapult her into the group of major players on Capitol Hill, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Janet Yellen.
Her confirmation by the Senate is likely but not guaranteed. And this is where she seems to skate on thin ice. As social media users, we are always aware and warned that our tweets may one day come back to bite us (Trump’s tweets provide ample convincing evidence).

Tanden’s rants against several Republicans are hardly likely to add to her charm as a candidate presenting herself before top Senate Committees. Suspecting they are likely to have the opposite effect, hundreds of her acrimonious tweets have miraculously disappeared from her Twitter account. This is a desperate gesture to make her candidacy more digestible, one that sours her credibility.

But Lady Luck may yet step into help her out. The Senate majority hangs in a balance. If the two Georgia Senate seats go to Democrats on January 5, she will get the confirmation she covets.

Even if she secures Senate’s approval, her challenge will be to carefully steer the budget ship away from a path of collision with the various contesting priorities and blocs within the Biden coalition. While to Republicans she seems unacceptably liberal, to the Bernie Sanders-Alexandra Cortez group, she is suspect as not liberal enough. Conservatives resent, even fear, Tanden for her advocacy of not incremental but radical change – a charge best illustrated in the mission of the CAP she currently heads.

“The Center for American Progress,” the mission statement reads, is “an independent nonpartisan policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action. Our aim is not just to change the conversation, but to change the country.”

The attacks from the Left have been overt. Sanders, for instance, has been critical of her organization (CAP)’s reliance on corporate donations. Attacks from others have been more gutsy and visceral. An erstwhile fiery Sanders spokesperson has gone to the extent of calling Tanden’s selection “less of an olive branch than a middle finger to the left.”

Yet others have referred to Tanden as the Lightning Rod. If you are unsure what that implies, it is useful to recall how lightning rod is defined in the dictionary – a person or thing that attracts and absorbs powerful and especially negative or hostile feelings, opinions, etc., thereby diverting such feelings from other targets. In other words, by directing the criticism that should or would be aimed at Biden towards Tanden, she becomes an easy target and one that is easily disposable.

For Tanden to be deemed a sacrificial lamb is to mock Biden’s campaign promise of gender equality, color diversity, and equal respect for all. Worse, it is a slap in the face of Indian Americans.

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Neera Kuckreja Sohoni has a Ph.D. in economics and is a published author.

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