Progressives have been able to live with most of Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks.
But to many of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ staunchest supporters, Biden’s decision to tap Hillary Clinton loyalist Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget is just too much — the equivalent of rubbing salt in the wound.
To former Sanders staffers and allies, Tanden is one of the Democratic elites who helped sink his 2016 campaign behind the scenes, not to mention a union-buster, a threat to Social Security, a hippie-puncher who constantly picks fights with the left, and much more.
“I don’t know anyone personally in Bernie world who is happy about this choice,” said Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ former national press secretary. “We’re talking about a woman who’s notorious for assaulting Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager.”
Another 2020 senior Sanders aide, who declined to speak on the record, called the addition of Tanden, a former Clinton staffer and longtime adviser, to the president-elect’s economic team “a big slap in the face of Bernie people.”
There is a long backstory to the bitterness between Sanders’ orbit and Tanden: During the presidential primary campaign in 2019, Sanders penned a fiery letter to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, which Tanden leads, accusing her of “maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.”
Sanders also ripped into a video by ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which charged him with changing his rhetoric about millionaires after reaping royalties from a best-selling book. Tanden said then that ThinkProgress was “editorially independent” from both CAP and the Action Fund, an explanation that progressives saw as unpersuasive.
Around the same time, the New York Times reported that Tanden had years earlier punched Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager, “in the chest” when he worked as ThinkProgress’ editor, citing an anonymous source. She disputed that characterization, saying she “didn’t slug him,” but pushed him. Before then, WikiLeaks emails revealed her calling ThinkProgress staffers “crazy leftists” and advising against supporting a $15 minimum wage, one of Sanders’ top policy priorities.
“It’s like putting Chelsea Clinton in the office,” said Kurt Ehrenberg, Sanders’ former longtime political strategist in New Hampshire. “She’s clearly not a friend of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders supporters also knocked her past proposal “to reform the beneficiary structure of Social Security” and the fact that ThinkProgress’ unionized newsroom was laid off during her tenure.
A person close to Tanden said that she made those remarks about Social Security when President Barack Obama was doing much of the same and is now in close alignment with Biden, who has advocated for expanding the program. The Center for American Progress remained neutral during ThinkProgress’ unionization drive, the person said, and the site shut down because of declining ad revenue and social media algorithm changes, not due to the union.
A Biden transition official defended her as experienced and a historic choice. Tanden is Indian American.
“This is the first time I can recall that an OMB director who’s charged with setting a federal budget will be someone who actually grew up in Section 8 housing, grew up on food stamps,” the official added.
Paco Fabián, campaigns and communications director for the Sanders-founded Our Revolution, said Tanden is “certainly not a unity pick” and “it’s not a secret that progressives and Neera Tanden haven’t gotten along over the last few years on several issues.” He added that she tends to “punch left, instead of focusing on the real adversary here, which is the Republican Party and money in politics.”
While his ex-staffers have spent the last two days blasting away at Tanden online and in private forums, Sanders and his current aides have remained silent on her nomination — a reflection of the fact that the Vermont senator and his diehard supporters often employ different political strategies. Mike Casca, a spokesman for Sanders, declined to comment for this story. Sanders has not echoed other liberal senators, such as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in praising Tanden this week on social media, nor has he joined his fans criticizing her.
Tanden is also facing fire from the right, which is expected to be more of an obstacle for her unless Democrats win the two upcoming Senate races in Georgia. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) described her as “radioactive.”
“It’s pretty crazy to me to think that she can go back and … eliminate all the tweets that she’s sent out over the last, whatever, months, years. And I think it’s really a misstep by the administration,” he said.
One former top Sanders aide said it is possible that he will vote against Tanden’s confirmation or perhaps use it as leverage to extract progressive appointments from the Biden administration. But several other ex-Sanders staffers and advisers said it is unlikely he would oppose her confirmation, pointing to the fact that he has worked harmoniously with Biden over the last few months. Sanders is currently vying to be Biden’s Labor secretary.
“The real problem here is Republicans, not Bernie,” said a person close to Sanders, referring to the confirmation process of Tanden.
It is unclear whether Tanden has attempted to offer an olive branch to Sanders or his aides since being tapped by Biden. The Biden transition team did not respond to a question about potential outreach. But after the primary ended, she publicly signaled appreciation for Sanders, saying that he “has been a tremendous force in helping unify the party” while campaigning for Biden.
Other activists in the progressive movement had a different take on Tanden, saying that there was a worse alternative who had been floated to lead the Office of Management and Budget: “deficit hawk” Bruce Reed, chief domestic policy adviser during the Clinton administration. Progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) signed a petition last week opposing Reed’s appointment. (Reed supporters have argued that he would not put deficits ahead of working families.)
“Neera Tanden is not a pick progressives would have chosen, but she’s better than Bruce Reed,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-wing group Justice Democrats, in a statement. “Tanden’s on the record over the past several years pushing back against nonsensical worries about the deficit. Reed has been more of an ideological deficit hawk throughout his career.”
Robert Hockett, a former Sanders adviser and Cornell Law School professor, said progressives’ disappointment about Tanden is overshadowing the fact that some of Biden’s other picks for his economic team, such as Heather Boushey, Cecilia Rouse and Jared Bernstein, are positive developments for the left.
“I’m as troubled as anybody by the announcement of Neera,” he said. But other nods are “significant improvements over what we might have expected not only of course during the Trump administration, but even during the Obama administration.”
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