Taking up the Torch

Neera Tanden’s past clashes with left over Israel shape her tenure as domestic policy advisor

The longtime Democratic Party insider is taking over for Susan Rice days after the release of the national strategy to counter antisemitism

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Neera Tanden, nominee for Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), finishes her confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on February 10, 2021.

The day after the Biden administration released its long-awaited national strategy to counter antisemitism last week, the plan’s architect — Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice — departed the White House. 

The implementation of the strategy will now fall to Rice’s replacement, Neera Tanden, a longtime Democratic operative who is succeeding Rice as President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy advisor. 

“If people are thinking they’re going to phone it in now that the strategy is out, that is not going to happen on her watch,” said Jarrod Bernstein, who served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during the Obama administration. “She’s a policy person. She’s also a details person. So if agencies have specific commitments and specific projects that they are responsible for, they’re going to be responsible for them, and she’s going to check.” (Bernstein also serves as a co-host of Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast.”)

In a May statement announcing Tanden’s appointment, Biden praised her “25 years of experience in public policy” and called her “a key architect of the Affordable Care Act.” Early in his presidency, Biden had tapped Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget, but she withdrew her name from consideration amid concerns she did not have the votes for the Senate-confirmed position. She has spent the last two years as a senior advisor and White House staff secretary. 

A White House spokesperson told JI on Wednesday that Tanden “will take a lead role in implementing” the antisemitism strategy, and that she “looks forward to vigorously and expeditiously implementing the strategy through an ongoing interagency process.”

Tanden, 52, has been a top Democratic party operative since the Clinton administration. During the 2016 presidential campaign, while she served as the president of the influential liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP), Tanden became a fierce defender of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — and a lightning rod for criticism from far-left supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whose campaign she opposed. A prolific tweeter, Tanden has also garnered widespread opposition from Republicans, who attacked her during her OMB nomination process for a history of tweeting scathing insults at Republicans. 

“She is a pragmatic progressive, right next to Hillary [Clinton], in terms of if your goal — if your definition of progressive is someone who believes that government should work to make lives better, now and in the future, how do we best get that done?” said Ann Lewis, who served as White House communications director under former President Bill Clinton and is now the co-chair of Democratic Majority for Israel. 

Tanden engendered some enemies on the left, who still have vivid memories of the 2016 campaign. The Intercept wrote in April that Tanden “would bring an unusual amount of intra-party polarization, to put it gently, to a role that requires broad coalition building.”

“Joe Biden is a mainstream centrist Democrat, and so his staff is going to reflect that,” said Bernstein. “If you were looking for something other than that, there are going to be moments where that difference annoys you.”

When asked about Tanden’s conflicts with some segments of the Democratic Party, former Obama administration deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said he trusts Biden’s choices: “The president has confidence in her, and that’s all the rest of us need to know,” Schultz said. 

At CAP, Tanden also presided over an early intra-Democratic Party feud around Israel, when pro-Israel advocates put pressure on the organization after one of its staffers had tweeted using language viewed by many in the Jewish community to be antisemitic. 

“It was one of the first instances in which a mainstream Democratic institution was really infected with this sort of super anti-Zionist, really hostile, pretty nasty stuff,” said Josh Block, the former CEO of The Israel Project and a former AIPAC spokesperson, who had urged people in his network to publicly go after CAP during the 2012 incident. The staffer soon left CAP. 

“When this was called to her attention, she fixed it, sort of firmly, quietly, and moved CAP back to where it should be, which is really one of the leading places in which Democrats in and out of office can talk about good policy and how to make it happen,” said Lewis, who has been close to Tanden since they worked together on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. 

Tanden ultimately came out on the side of Israel’s backers in the Democratic Party, earning her praise from pro-Israel stalwarts. On Wednesday, AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr told JI that “the pro-Israel community and Jewish leaders enjoyed a very positive working relationship with Neera during her career in Washington.”

In 2015, CAP again sparked controversy among some on the left when the think tank hosted a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The event was eight months after several Democrats boycotted Netanyahu’s address to Congress, when he had been invited by Republican leaders who had not informed President Barack Obama, and many in the party were still furious at the Israeli leader for circumventing the president. Several former CAP staffers criticized the move, with one saying it was a ploy for Netanyahu to gain “progressive validation.” (Netanyahu was also criticized by some on the right for speaking at the left-wing organization.)

“By moderating a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2015, she affirmed that we can and should have constructive conversations with our allies, perhaps especially when we don’t agree with them,” said Rachel Rosen, who worked at CAP for five years under Tanden and who is now the communications director at Democratic Majority For Israel. “She made sure CAP was the place to advance big policy ideas, allowing for respectful disagreements, and made clear there was no place for antisemitism at CAP or within the Democratic Party.” 

Now that the antisemitism strategy has been released, it’s not clear what’s next for the White House efforts to fight antisemitism. The plan included more than 100 policy actions that executive agencies pledged to take within the year but did not lay out how they would see those priorities through. 

“If [Tanden] is responsible for the implementation of that plan, I think we can count on her to be a good ally,” said Block. 

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