Though she would be making an unusual jump to a Cabinet-level position, Tai is well regarded by both the moderate and liberal wings of the party and is backed by prominent lawmakers, including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). A group of 10 female House Democrats led by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (Ore.) and Judy Chu (Calif.) wrote Biden last month backing Tai as “uniquely qualified” for the job.
Tai would also be the second Asian American woman to be named to a Cabinet-level position under Biden. Her planned selection comes after members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and several advocacy groups met with Biden’s transition team this week to express their growing concern that there would be insufficient Asian American representation in top-tier spots in Biden’s administration.
Along with substantial experience on Capitol Hill, Tai spent seven years as a U.S. trade representative (USTR) attorney specializing in enforcing trade agreements with China. Tai reportedly impressed many Democrats last December while negotiating with Trump officials for stronger labor provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
“She impressed the hell out of them in the USMCA negotiations,” said one person familiar with Tai’s candidacy.
Lori Wallach, who heads Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, praised Tai for “an encyclopedic knowledge of trade” — particularly on trade with China — and her “top-notch political skills.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, described Tai as knowledgeable, patient and creative.
“I’m sad to lose her from our committee staff, but she will more than make up for it with what she will bring to the USTR — a vital agency that affects us all,” he said in a statement.
Tai will require Senate confirmation, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged Republicans to quickly do so next year.
“Her record of getting wins for American workers demonstrates she knows how to champion the values that matter to U.S. families,” Wyden said. “She worked closely with me and my staff to craft the strongest-ever protections for American workers in a trade agreement, and pass them into law with bipartisan support.”
Tai, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, would be the first woman of color to hold the job. Tai graduated from Yale University and earned her law degree from Harvard Law School. She spent two years teaching English at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou as a Yale-China Fellow.
Normally a low-profile outpost, the position of chief trade negotiator became one of the Trump administration’s most consequential jobs. Ambassador Robert E. Lighthizer, an experienced trade attorney, was the intellectual muscle behind President Trump’s “America First” sentiments, driving a protectionist revolution in U.S. policy.
With the USTR’s help, Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminum along with much of what Americans import from China. Lighthizer, a fierce critic of the World Trade Organization, hammered out new agreements with South Korea; Mexico and Canada; and China. But he failed to achieve Trump’s goal of narrowing the U.S. trade deficit and left many U.S. allies irritated by his uncompromising stance.
Biden has said he plans no early reversal of the Trump tariffs, though that could come later. He also plans investments in infrastructure, education and manufacturing before seeking new trade deals. And he has proposed a $400 billion “Buy America” initiative, which could require renegotiating some existing accords.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.