Neera Tanden leads the Susan Rice replacement race
Tom Perez, Tara McGuinness, Sarah Bianchi and a handful of others are also in the mix for DPC director
Among the high-profile departures announced on bloody Monday, one may prove far more historically consequential than the other two. Susan Rice cut a low public profile in her role as director of the Domestic Policy Council, but it is as important a role as any other inside the White House – perhaps more than any other. The choice of her successor will be arguably the most significant President Joe Biden makes in the back half of his first term.
I talked about that today on Counter Points – scroll to the bottom of this email for links to today’s show if you’re a subscriber to this newsletter – and you can read more here. But with the House in Republican hands, the Biden administration’s ability to wield executive power when it comes to immigration, wages, implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, executing on its care economy agenda, implementing gun control policies, securing voting rights, or finding creative ways to expand access to abortion services will heavily depend on who Biden taps to run the DPC. The position will also take on heightened importance if the Supreme Court ultimately rejects the administration’s student debt relief plan. Biden will have a free hand, as the position is not Senate confirmed.
That’s a good thing for one of the leading candidates, Twitter jouster and White House adviser Neera Tanden, who is in the running for the job. She was previously tapped to run the Office of Management and Budget, but bipartisan opposition doomed her bid in the Senate. She was brought into the White House anyway, and now serves as staff secretary, an influential position.
While Tanden would bring an unusual amount of intra-party polarization – to put it gently – to a role that requires broad coalition building in order to execute on strategy, the short list of those being discussed, according to well-placed sources in and out of the White House, also includes Tom Perez, Tara McGuinness, Sarah Bianchi, Emmy Ruiz, Carmel Martin, and Ann O’Leary. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to harm relationships with the White House or undermine the odds of any particular candidate.
The role requires a high degree of executive, managerial, and organizational chops, given that it is at the center of the processes of creating a policy agenda, building a coalition to support it, and finding the ability to execute it amid competing jurisdictions and power centers. It’s not enough to have the right politics when it comes to immigration, for instance, it also requires designing a policy that can be effectively implemented across federal agencies and state and local governments under crisis conditions. (Rice was widely panned by immigration groups for her role on that front.)
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Or, to take another example, when it comes to climate, being an effective advisor means not just getting money out the door, but making sure it gets out both quickly and efficiently to projects that actually come on line. Perez and Tanden, in their roles at the Democratic National Committee and Center for American Progress, respectively, came in for substantial criticism from staff and external partners for their management of their operations, which could hinder their candidacy for a position that requires managerial expertise.
The White House, presented the short list and provided a sketch of descriptions of the candidates below, declined to comment.
Tom Perez: As secretary of labor under President Obama, Perez was generally considered among the more progressive members of the cabinet. More recently, his tenure as head of the Democratic National Committee involved a mishandling of the Iowa caucuses so extreme it literally ended the Iowa caucuses, and he managed to regularly alienate the progressive wing of the party yet badly underperformed when it came to fundraising. Meanwhile, the party’s data infrastructure ossified under his management, as Republicans for the first time in the tech era overtook Democrats in their data capacity.
Neera Tanden: The former head of the Center for American Progress, Tanden is famous for her political feuding. That approach could make the job a challenge. But Tanden, widely regarded as smart and hardworking even by her critics, also has vocal defenders, and people close to the process say she is the candidate most intensely chasing the role — the first whose name was reported as a contender within moments of Rice’s announced departure. If done subtly, a campaign for the role could play to her significant advantage. If done with sharp elbows, it could backfire in a city filled with relentlessly ambitious people who are forced to pretend they are just here to serve the public.
Tara McGuinness: McGuinness played a lead role in the Biden transition, setting in place the apparatus she’d be managing as DPC director, but declined to take a role for herself. The timing may be better now, as McGuinness is most known for her skill at implementation and in the actual work of governing. McGuinness and White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients worked closely together in the salvage effort launched after Obamacare’s online marketplaces crashed on takeoff in 2013. Her 2021 book, “Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology,” is the rare effort to take designing and implementing policy as seriously as the construction of messaging around it, and draws on that and other experiences in government. McGuinness founded the think tank New America’s New Practice Lab, which examines the way that government policy can be used to improve economic security for families.
Sarah Bianchi: The deputy U.S. Trade Representative, Bianchi has spent her career spinning through the revolving door. After working in the Clinton administration, she moved to the hedge fund Eton Park. She later served as director of economic and domestic policy for Biden when he was vice president, but didn’t serve till the end of his term. Instead, she left to become a managing director at BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investment firms. From there, she became a top lobbyist for Airbnb, teaming with Uber to push for legislation denying gig workers status as employees and otherwise lobbying against efforts to make it easier for gig workers to unionize. Biden’s commitment to being the best ally organized labor has ever had in the White House would be dramatically undercut if he hired a gig-company lobbyist to run his domestic policy. Of course, that doesn’t rule her out of contention.
Emmy Ruiz: Ruiz was a member of the “Mook mafia” on the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign, a reference to her lieutenant Robby Mook. A campaign hand for Obama in 2012, Clinton in 2016, and Kamala Harris in 2020, Ruiz now works in the White House as director of political strategy and outreach. Her heavily political role, which is light on policy involvement, makes her an unlikely candidate.
Ann O’Leary: Like McGuinness, O’Leary is known for her administrative chops, and like Bianchi (though at a higher level), she has taken a number of trips through the revolving door dating back to the Clinton administration. Politico recently described her as “a policy powerhouse with a golden Rolodex to match” in an article about her run-in with her former boss California Gov. Gavin Newsom as she represented Walgreens in a dispute with the state over access to abortion medication. She’s currently based in California, diminishing the likelihood she’d be offered or accept the role.
Carmel Martin: With a policy focus on education, Martin has an ally in First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Having spent significant time at both the Department of Justice and in the Senate, Martin, a deputy director of the DPC, would bring a range of government experience to the role. She also served as a senior policy advisor for Biden’s 2020 campaign. A significant number of the other candidates would likely need to be eliminated one way or the other before Martin rose to the top.
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