Privately, too, O’Leary has reiterated her belief that the White House could and should still muster the votes needed for Tanden’s confirmation—noting that Tanden is qualified for the job and that her friends and allies should come to her side and not back down from defending her.
It’s a message that synced with administration officials who have refused to retreat from the nomination despite mounting evidence it’s going down.
But, at the same time, O’Leary has not shied away from touting her own qualification for the Biden administration’s top budget job should that no longer be the case. In conversations with numerous Democratic associates since her name began appearing in news stories as a possible fallback option, O’Leary has portrayed herself as a skilled policy architect and less partisan alternative, according to three Democrats familiar with the exchanges. O’Leary has gone as far as telling them that she could be confirmed by the Senate, two of the sources told POLITICO.
Reached by phone Wednesday, O’Leary restated her support for Tanden.
“Neera Tanden is exceptionally well qualified and should be confirmed for this position,” O’Leary said. “I have worked with her for years and years and I can’t imagine a better advocate for President Biden to get his budget through Congress and help manage the policies of this administration. I am 1,000 percent behind her.”
One friend who spoke with O’Leary said the feeling they got from their conversation was that she was not campaigning for the OMB post. But the timing of O’Leary’s private comments raised eyebrows for others given her stated commitment to Tanden’s Senate confirmation battle and their history together. The two, at one point in time, were considered part of an exceedingly small “brain trust” for Hillary Clinton that included Heather Boushey, who now is on the Biden White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.
O’Leary’s private conversations in recent days also lend credence to a dynamic the White House itself has refused to publicly acknowledge: that Tanden’s chances of confirmation are increasingly dim and that machinations are underway to be her replacement.
Several alternatives have emerged with competing constituencies in their corners. House Democrats are making the case for Shalanda Young, Biden’s deputy director nominee at OMB, whom they know from her time as staff director of the Appropriations Committee. Support for Shalanda on the Hill is so strong that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and lieutenants, including Rep. Jim Clyburn, were on board before Biden named Tanden. Progressives in the party are coalescing behind Gene Sperling, a former National Economic Council director.
O’Leary has a close relationship with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who she would likely need the backing of to secure the OMB nomination if one opens. But she faces headwinds from her tenure with Newsom, a Democrat whose stewardship of the state amid the coronavirus crisis has been so uneven that opponents are closing in on the signatures to qualify a recall effort.
While O’Leary has loyal allies in California, including current and former Newsom aides who praise her policy command and record of accomplishments with Newsom, she confounded other advisers who argued that she struggled to get up to speed on the inner workings of Sacramento and its complex power dynamics.
She also co-chaired the state’s now-defunct Covid business task force with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer that ultimately was more for optics than actually addressing the issues at hand, with some high-profile defections at the end including Bob Iger.
The possible recall campaign, which comes against the backdrop of shuttered schools and irate business owners who blame their struggles on the state’s see-sawing coronavirus restrictions, could form the basis for critics trying to thwart an O’Leary Senate confirmation.