The Memo: Tension builds around key Biden nominees

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Tensions are brewing around some of President-elect Joe Biden’s picks for key posts in his administration, with protesting voices raised on the left as well as among Republicans.

Two figures in particular are under scrutiny: Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of State, and Neera Tanden, the proposed head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Blinken is a longtime part of the foreign policy establishment, having served as deputy secretary of State in the Obama administration.

Highly regarded by colleagues, questions are nevertheless being asked about Blinken’s role at WestExec Advisors, a consultancy firm whose clients remain opaque.

After Politico published a story last week referring to the firm as “secretive,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tweeted, “I want to see what foreign countries, if any, they have worked for.”

Blinken founded the firm in 2017, alongside Michèle Flournoy. Speculation is rife that Biden could choose Flournoy as his secretary of Defense.

Blinken’s work for WestExec is the rare issue that puts a staunch conservative such as Cornyn and progressives on a similar page.

“Transparency is critical, so definitely questions about Blinken and what clients are paying him — that matters. The American people deserve to know,” said Charles Chamberlain, chair of Democracy for America (DFA), a progressive group.

The fight over Blinken mirrors a long-standing fissure within the Democratic Party. Blinken, like Biden, was a supporter of the Iraq War, which a huge swathe of the Democratic grassroots vigorously opposed. More recently, he favored military intervention in Libya — a move that helped oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi but plunged the North African nation into chaos from which it has not yet emerged.

Other voices sympathetic to the progressive movement have highlighted Blinken’s backing of Saudi Arabia in its military actions in neighboring Yemen.

“Institutionalists like Blinken have done tremendous damage,” Sophia Tesfaye wrote in Salon. “From supporting the invasion of Iraq to backing the Saudi war in Yemen, Blinken has championed some of the worst foreign policy decisions in recent U.S. history.”

Progressive criticism often sits uneasily with Biden loyalists who note he won the Democratic nomination comfortably, vanquishing two of the left’s leading lights, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in the process.

There are also major foreign policy figures who extol Blinken’s virtues. Samantha Power, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President Obama, referred to Blinken on Twitter as “a great leader and an inspired choice.” Susan Rice, who served in the same role, and also as national security adviser, predicted that Blinken would “make a superb Secretary of State.”

Some on the left also profess themselves fairly content with Biden’s moves so far. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, praised the selection of Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary, as well as Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey as members of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers.

He said Yellen had been willing to take on big banks in the past, and that Bernstein and Boushey had “impeccable progressive bona fides.”

The head of the OMB may not hold the same level of high prestige as secretary of State, but Tanden’s nomination has incited every bit as intense a firestorm.

A Cornyn spokesperson said on Sunday that she had “zero chance” of being confirmed by the Senate, citing her “endless stream of disparaging comments about the Republican Senators whose votes she’ll need.”

Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has suggested that Tanden’s nomination might be a “sacrifice to the confirmation gods” — that is, a nominee that an incoming president knows will be rejected but who will draw heat away from other nominees.

The reaction to Tanden in some quarters of the left was even more apoplectic.

Briahna Joy Gray, who served as national press secretary for Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted: “Everything toxic about the corporate Democratic Party is embodied in Neera Tanden.”

The personal tone was hardly surprising given Tanden’s long-standing zest for Twitter fights, especially with Sanders supporters and others on the left. But as Gray and others noted, her political history also includes an openness to cutting Social Security.

Chamberlain, the DFA chair, described her nomination as “a big mistake.”

He noted that there were a number of Biden picks who did please progressives, including Yellen for secretary of the Treasury.

His organization would be “all-in” for Yellen, he said — but if Tanden’s nomination ran into trouble, “good luck!”

“There is no way DFA is going to lift a finger for Neera Tanden to get any kind of position in this administration,” he added.

Chamberlain also wondered aloud about the Biden administration’s thinking. Knowing there would be tough fights with Republicans over nominees, “why would you split the coalition of people you need to get through your appointments?”

Some on the left have backed Tanden, however, including Warren and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Others praised some of Biden’s picks and insisted the left had to be realistic.

Biden “is going to select people who he is comfortable with and who align with his ideology — and that isn’t our people,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini. “That’s just a fact.”

For now, though, it looks like Biden’s team already has some fights on its hands.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags anthony blinken secretary of state progressives criticism neera tanden omb joe biden president-elect Barbara Lee Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Janet Yellen Joe Biden John Cornyn Mitch McConnell Samantha Power
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