But after wasting weeks backing a candidate who had limited political support, the Biden administration is now hesitating in naming someone with nearly universal support. Meanwhile, advocates for racial diversity are pressuring the White House to look beyond old hands such as Gene Sperling, who would add little in the way of diversity to a West Wing filled with White male policy advisers.
Young, who is Black, is backed by a powerful mix of allies, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Congressional Black Caucus and some prominent conservative Republicans. But her prospects appear to be colliding with the Biden team’s resistance to public pressure for high-level posts, for which the president has often tapped allies and other known commodities.
People close to the White House say some aides have been turned off by the overt campaigning on Young’s behalf, which began before the White House formally withdrew the nomination of Neera Tanden earlier this week.
At the same time, the White House is grappling with concerns about racial diversity in senior administration positions, as Tanden was one of just two Asian Americans nominated for Cabinet-level jobs.
Even though Young — like Tanden — would be a historic pick, the relatively paltry Asian American representation in the Biden Cabinet is increasingly infuriating lawmakers and advocates who worry that their community is being left behind in an administration that has proudly touted the most diverse Cabinet in history.
“We’re extremely frustrated to see a lack of Asian American representation at high levels in this administration,” said John Yang, the president and executive director of the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “On one level, we are happy about the administration’s efforts at diversity elsewhere, and they are clearly nominating people that are very qualified.”
Yang continued, “Likewise, there are many Asian Americans who are very qualified.”
Though mostly obscure outside Washington, the OMB job shows how dynamics such as personal loyalty, ideological diversity and a commitment to racial representation can end up competing with one another in an administration that prizes all three of those goals. It is a separate agency, but the OMB is often seen as a direct extension of the White House.
The OMB is also facing a critical juncture, particularly with a massive coronavirus relief package on the verge of approval and a presidential budget to draft. White House officials initially discussed releasing a budget this month, which would have been later than usual, but now Democrats think it could come as late as April or May, according to two people familiar with the discussions, who spoke about the private talks on the condition of anonymity.
That would be a significant delay and a setback for an administration trying to leave its stamp on the federal budget. Biden’s OMB officials were slowed down by their predecessors’ refusal to turn documents over during the transition.
Among people mentioned for the role are Sperling, the former economic director in the Clinton and Obama administrations and a favorite of liberals, and Ann O’Leary, a former top aide to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) who is an ally of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
Others floated for the job include Sarah Bianchi, a longtime Biden policy aide, and Sonal Shah, an Obama alum who was policy director on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Shah, who is Indian American, is being promoted by Asian American and Pacific Islander groups that are raising alarms about the lack of representation in the Cabinet.
The White House has signaled that a permanent nominee to lead the OMB could be some time away. This week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration wants to get Young installed in the deputy job and then have her serve as acting OMB director, although confirmation is probably at least a couple of weeks away considering that Young had her hearings only this week.
That way, officials said, the OMB could get up and running and the White House would have time to choose its preferred candidate.
“There’s a range of individuals in the country who are qualified for the job,” Psaki said. “So we’ll leave him the space and time to make a decision about who he’d like to nominate as a replacement for Neera Tanden.”
Tanden faced bipartisan opposition because of past social media posts attacking lawmakers.
Yet the hesitation to nominate Young and put her into the acting slot instead has privately baffled some Democrats and even some Republicans who see the veteran House Appropriations Committee staff director as the clear choice. Her overwhelming bipartisan support on the Hill, combined with Biden’s penchant to nominate “firsts” for key positions, would seem to make her a natural pick.
Meanwhile, the administration has also taken steps to solicit feedback ahead of time from key figures on the Hill. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who was caught blindsided by the initial decision to tap Tanden, has offered some suggestions for OMB director at the behest of the White House, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
One Asian American woman recommended by Sanders was Thea Lee, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, who testified before his committee last month on wages, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private discussions. The lack of consultation with Sanders on Tanden was seen as a major misstep by the White House, considering his top role on the committee that would process the OMB job and Tanden’s history tangling with Sanders’s supporters in his 2016 presidential bid.
Various Asian American and Pacific Islander groups and lawmakers have privately offered the White House a list of OMB candidates, including Shah; Chris Lu, deputy labor secretary under President Barack Obama; Nani Coloretti, an Obama deputy secretary at Housing and Urban Development; Felicia Wong, the president and chief executive of the Roosevelt Institute; and former Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh.
Shekar Narasimhan, the chairman and founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, said his group has had conversations with administration officials and has urged them to again consider Asian Americans for the top OMB job.
He emphasized that Asian Americans already felt slighted that there was no Asian American-Pacific Islander official in a secretary position in the Cabinet — the first time in two decades that has occurred.
Advocates and Asian American-Pacific Islander groups had been concerned as early as December when Tanden was initially nominated, worried about her confirmation prospects in either a Republican- or a Democratic-controlled Senate.
The only other Asian American currently nominated to a Cabinet-level post is Katherine Tai, Biden’s pick to be U.S. trade representative. She, like Young, was most recently a veteran congressional staffer with limited ties to Biden’s inner circle.
“I also want the optics of being able to say to our community, ‘You stood up, you voted, and you wrote checks with your pocketbook, we got here and look what I can show you what happened because of it,’ ” Narasimhan said of the importance of representation in the administration. “You don’t give me any of those things, I got a big problem motivating anybody in 2022.”
In recent days, O’Leary has made it clear to associates that she is very interested in the OMB job. She was considered a top alternative to Tanden during the transition, and many Democrats expected her to land a senior job in the administration. O’Leary has never worked for Biden, but she has a close relationship with Klain and John Podesta, both of whom championed Tanden. (Podesta is a former top Clinton aide who has provided counsel to the Biden team.)
O’Leary recently left Newsom’s office, where she served as his chief of staff, after people in the governor’s orbit felt she was not best suited to handle the cascading crises besetting the governor, including a recall effort amid criticism of his response to the coronavirus. Some Democrats think her work with Newsom could complicate her confirmation process. Before Newsom, she worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as a senior policy adviser with Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser.
Meanwhile, Sperling has been backed by some liberal groups, but his prospects for the job could be imperiled by diversity concerns, especially given that most top policy jobs in the White House are occupied by White men.
In addition to Klain as Biden’s chief of staff and Sullivan at the National Security Council, Brian Deese heads the National Economic Council, Bruce Reed is the deputy chief of staff overseeing policy, and Jeff Zients runs the pandemic response. Many of the deputies are White men as well.
The Senate recently confirmed Cecilia Rouse as chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, making her the first Black person to serve in the role, and Susan Rice, who was the first Black woman to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now heads the Domestic Policy Council.
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.