IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why the first defeat for a Biden cabinet nominee stings

Most modern presidents tend to have one failure among their cabinet nominees. But Neera Tanden's example stings more than most.
Image: Neera Tanden appears before a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 10, 2021.
Neera Tanden appears before a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 10, 2021.Anna Moneymaker / The New York Times via AP file

Most modern presidents tend to have at least one failure among their cabinet nominees. For George H.W. Bush, it was John Tower. For Bill Clinton, it was Zoe Baird. For George W. Bush, Linda Chavez's and Bernie Kerik's nominations went awry. For Barack Obama, Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson were unexpected failures.

Even Donald Trump, whose nominees Senate Republicans were eager to confirm without regard for merit, saw Andy Puzder's cabinet nomination collapse.

Yesterday, President Joe Biden joined the club, suffering the first personnel setback of his term.

The White House is withdrawing Neera Tanden's nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget, marking the first major personnel defeat for President Joe Biden.... Tanden, who would have been the first nonwhite woman to run the office, was criticized because of her previous posts on Twitter targeting Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

In a written statement, Biden said he had accepted Tanden's request to withdraw her name from consideration, adding, "I have the utmost respect for her record of accomplishment, her experience and her counsel, and I look forward to having her serve in a role in my administration. She will bring valuable perspective and insight to our work."

The news was not too surprising. After Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Congress' most conservative Democrat, announced his opposition to Tanden's nomination, her odds of success effectively collapsed. The White House nevertheless stood by the OMB nominee and tried to secure a vote or two from Senate Republicans, but those efforts predictably went nowhere.

At a certain level, I can appreciate why this may not seem like an especially big deal. Tanden will land on her feet and be chosen for a good gig in the White House. The administration, meanwhile, will still end up with a perfectly qualified OMB director who will likely agree with Tanden and Biden on practically everything. As a matter of governance, the practical consequences of these events are probably limited.

But let's not play games with the plain truth: Tanden got a raw deal after being held to an unfair standard.

Yes, she published intemperate and undiplomatic tweets, but plenty of Trump nominees had far uglier rhetorical records, and each of them were confirmed to cabinet posts anyway.

And yes, Tanden earned a reputation as a strong partisan, but both of Trump's OMB directors were rabid Republicans -- one co-founded the far-right House Freedom Caucus, the other was a partisan activist accurately described as "a political brawler" who spent years "waging war against GOP leadership" for not being conservative enough -- and they too received Senate confirmation.

Indeed, after four years of hysterical, and at times dangerous, online missives from Donald Trump, the whole idea that some mean tweets would derail a competent and capable Democratic nominee is absurd.

And yet, that is precisely what has happened. Tanden, a woman of color, is obviously more qualified than both of Trump's OMB directors, both of whom were white men, but they were confirmed and her nomination failed.

It's not right.

Finally, while I suspect some will wonder why there was such a fuss about a relatively obscure budget position, let's not forget that OMB matters -- a lot. As Kevin Drum recently summarized, "The Office of Management and Budget is one of those agencies that's little known to the public but surprisingly important in real life. In addition to managing the budget process, it's also the agency that does things like regulatory review and cost-benefit analysis, which can make all the difference between environmental regulations succeeding or failing."

Neera Tanden was ready to do that job, but senators have denied her that opportunity.