The Biden White House is signaling publicly and privately that it is not prepared to abandon Neera Tanden’s nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget.
But almost immediately after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced on Friday that he would vote against her confirmation — deeply imperiling her bid — behind-the-scenes jockeying began for those seeking to be the fallback option.
Two early contenders to replace Tanden are Gene Sperling, a two-time director of the National Economic Council, and Ann O’Leary, who just came off a stint serving as California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chief of staff, and who was considered a leading alternative to Tanden back in November when Tanden’s nomination was announced, according to people familiar with the matter.
Tanden’s selection to run the OMB was always viewed as a risky one for Biden, given her bare-knuckled approach to dealing with Republicans and particularly inflammatory Twitter account. But after Democrats took control of the Senate, Biden allies believed the president would get her confirmed.
Manchin, a moderate Democrat, likely blew up those plans Friday afternoon.
“I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget,” he said in a statement. “For this reason, I cannot support her nomination.
The White House signaled they had no intention from withdrawing Tanden’s nomination, with the president telling reporters after a trip to Michigan that, “I think we’re going to find the votes to get her confirmed.” Democrats believe it’s critical the Biden administration does not quickly relent on Tanden after Manchin’s opposition, if only to demonstrate they will not cower immediately to any opposition, including from within the party.
But with no Republicans signaling they would support Tanden, activists and allies are already scrambling for the potential opening.
Sperling, whose potential bid was mentioned in a Friday night article in The American Prospect, has boosters through the party owing to his service in the Clinton and Obama administrations and the relationships he’s built both with Biden’s top economic advisers and within progressive intellectual circles. Sperling did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden’s orbit believes he would be easily confirmed if nominated. But there are concerns about Sperling’s potential ascension because of the president’s stated commitment to build a diverse cabinet. Tanden is an Indian American woman, one of only two women of Asian descent nominated for the cabinet other than Vice President Kamala Harris.
“It’s difficult for them not to put a woman in the job because of the commitments the president made to having a balanced cabinet,” said one former Obama official.
Reached for comment, Sperling praised Tanden’s nomination to OMB.
“I have worked with Neera for over 20 years and have never stopped being impressed by the breadth of her policy expertise, her work ethic and commitment to helping Americans in need,” Sperling said. “She is supremely qualified to be OMB Director. I have been and remain 100% supportive of her confirmation.”
O’Leary is a longtime Democratic policymaker with close ties to top Biden aides — in particular, White House chief of staff Ron Klain — owing to her years of experience in Clintonworld. She worked in the Clinton White House and then joined Hillary Clinton’s Senate office as legislative director. She later served as a top policy adviser on Clinton’s 2016 campaign, along with Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser.
Her policy work has been widely praised by Democrats, but her chances at the slot may be bogged down by her most recent stint in the Newsom administration.
O’Leary served for two years as Newsom’s chief of staff, and it was well-known in Democratic circles that she was angling for a job in the Biden administration. But she left Newsom’s staff before she landed a job. Her departure came around the time the governor began to face a recall effort over criticism of how he has handled the Covid-19 pandemic. People in Newsom’s camp felt O’Leary was not the right person to lead the governor through the turbulence of a recall.
“Does the White House want to have Senate hearings that are going to examine the Gavin Newsom administration in California? That’s the baggage,” the Obama alum said. “There’s a lot of concern.”
O’Leary and the White House declined to comment.
Given the concerns surrounding Sperling and O’Leary, the White House could decide to elevate Shalanda Young, who has been nominated to serve as deputy OMB director. Young, a Black woman, is widely respected by both parties on the Hill, where she has worked as the staff director for House Democrats on the Appropriations Committee.
Still, the White House is insistent they will continue to push for Tanden’s confirmation, touting her more than 35 meetings with senators from both parties, her outreach to Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations and the business community and bipartisan support she earned outside the Beltway, including from former OMB Director Mitch Daniels, a Republican.
“Neera Tanden is an accomplished policy expert who would be an excellent budget director and we look forward to the committee votes next week and to continuing to work toward her confirmation through engagement with both parties,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement Friday night.
While most Democrats argue it’s too early to completely desert Tanden, they also worry about waiting too long to fill the top post at OMB, especially as the administration is expected to produce a budget in the coming weeks or months.
“I wouldn’t want to go another month without an OMB director,” the former Obama official said. “It’s an incredibly important time. Either let’s get Neera confirmed, or you’re going to have to move quickly.”
Kevin Yamamura contributed to this report.