A number of President Joe Biden’s nominees of color are facing opposition in the Senate, and their increasingly frustrated supporters are mobilizing against the harsher scrutiny these nominees have faced compared to their white counterparts.
This week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) threw the confirmation of Neera Tanden into doubt when he said he would oppose her to lead the Office of Management and Budget, arguing that her history of caustic tweets made her too “toxic.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) similarly said Tanden’s tweets make her unqualified for the role. “Neera Tanden has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency,” Collins said in a statement.
Tanden, the former president of the Center for American Progress, is the first Asian American woman nominated to lead the agency, and she would be one of the most high-profile Asian Americans in the Biden administration. But Democrats have a wafer-thin majority in the Senate, and essentially need every member of the caucus to stay unified in order to get Biden’s nominees through. So far, no Republican senator has indicated their support for Tanden.
The Senate committees considering her nomination postponed their votes, originally planned for Wednesday morning, saying members needed more time to consider Tanden — another sign of how rocky the road has been for the nominee. Her success may come down to the support of moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who sits on one of the relevant committees. Neither has indicated how they’ll vote.
Tanden’s tweets have taken aim at both the left and the right and earned her plenty of detractors. But she’s not the first nominee to have a social media trail. In 2018, the Senate approved Richard Grenell to be Donald Trump’s ambassador to Germany, even though he had a long history of posting rude and sexist messages on Twitter.
Manchin voted to approve Grenell. On Tuesday, he said the difference between the two was a matter of timing. After the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 ― which was carried out by Trump supporters ― Manchin said he believed the country now “can’t have that type of animosity.”
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told HuffPost that if Tanden’s nomination doesn’t go through, it would be a huge blow to the Asian American community. She’s also worried that nominees of color are facing a different level of scrutiny.
“Are we changing the standards depending on who the nominee is and who they look like, and are we moving the goalposts on what makes a nominee qualified?” she asked. “These are questions that I had.”
On Monday, nearly 30 influential gender and labor advocates, from organizations including the AFL-CIO and the National Women’s Law Center, signed a letter emphasizing Tanden’s qualifications.
“Neera is a strong, powerful woman with deep convictions, and someone who is not afraid to say what she thinks,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at the think tank New America who signed the letter supporting Tanden. “I don’t think she should be held to a different standard than what others with those same qualities have been held to.”
For now, it appears the White House is still standing by Tanden. When a CBS reporter asked Biden on Tuesday whether he still has confidence in Tanden, the president said: “We’re going to push. We still think there’s a shot, a good shot.”
Several other Biden nominees of color are facing questions and potential complications.
“If it was just Tanden, I’d say her circumstances are sufficiently unusual that we might not want to generalize. But it’s not just her,” said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia and an expert in gender and politics. “If you’ve got a handful of nominees who are either women or people of color systematically experiencing more hurdles and doubt than white men going through the confirmation process, that raises a flag.”
“That’s sexism and racism,” she added.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), the first Native American woman nominated to a Cabinet-level position, interior secretary, is under attack as a “radical” because she wants to address climate change (a goal of the Biden administration). And also for her tweets.
Civil rights lawyer Kristen Clarke, a Black woman who was nominated as assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s civil rights division, stands accused of “reverse racism” against white people (not a thing) because of a misunderstanding over a letter to the editor at The Harvard Crimson she published as a college student. She’s also spuriously been called anti-Semitic, an accusation that attorney general nominee Merrick Garland beat back at his own confirmation hearing Monday.
Vivek Murthy, who served as President Barack Obama’s surgeon general, faced a contentious confirmation process back then for his belief that gun violence is a public health issue. Manchin was one of the Democrats who opposed Murthy’s nomination at the time. He has not yet said whether he will back Murthy to be Biden’s surgeon general. Murthy is also facing scrutiny for his consulting and speeches for corporations over the past year.
And Xavier Becerra, a Latino man and son of immigrants who is Biden’s pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, is under fire because of his “controversial” views on immigration and his supposed lack of qualifications because he’s not a doctor. He is the current California attorney general and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and would be the first Latino HHS secretary. (Previous HHS secretaries Alex Azar and Kathleen Sebelius were also not doctors.)
“I’m not sold yet,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told Becerra, who has been defending the Affordable Care Act in court, at his confirmation hearing Tuesday. “I’m not sure you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job at this moment.”
Even Alejandro Mayorkas, who was recently confirmed as Biden’s secretary of homeland security, faced a particularly contentious confirmation process. Six Republicans voted with Democrats for Mayorkas’ confirmation.
Meanwhile, Biden’s white nominees have sailed through with significantly more ease. Janet Yellen (Treasury secretary), Denis McDonough (veterans affairs secretary), Pete Buttigieg (transportation secretary), Tony Blinken (secretary of state) and Avril Haines (director of national intelligence) all faced relatively conflict-free confirmations. Lloyd Austin, who is Black, was also easily confirmed through the Senate with a 93-2 vote.
Advocates and lawmakers pushed back on the idea that Biden’s non-white candidates are simply more controversial because of the positions they hold or their work as advocates concerning inequality or climate change or systemic racism.
White nominees, including Yellen, have also been outspoken on these issues.
“The idea that there’s controversy here bears a lot of scrutiny, especially when the controversy is that the person was an advocate, or the person sought to protect the rights of people of color, or fought to protect the rights of women,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center.
Graves worried that there’s a situation now where people of color are ruled out because they were once advocates.
“That would be absurd anytime, but is especially jarring coming after the last four years and the sort of nominees that sailed through,” she said.
It’s not yet clear whether some of the professed concerns from conservatives will translate into “no” votes for the nominees still awaiting confirmation, or whether they’ll ultimately be confirmed with strong support anyway.
Regardless, the fact that women and men of color are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts is not surprising. They face higher barriers to entry in all corridors of power.
In a survey last year of women in corporate America, women, especially Black women, said they’re called on to provide more evidence that they’re qualified at work. Forty percent of Black women said they’ve needed to provide more evidence of their competence, compared with 14% of men.
“Women always have a harder time,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who’s been lobbying hard for both Clarke at DOJ and Vanita Gupta, Biden’s pick for the No. 3 spot at the Justice Department, who’s been subject to a right-wing smear campaign.
“It is my hope that Biden fights for his nominees,” Campbell said.
“When someone points out that there is a double standard, that’s when you need to pause and reflect on how you are treating these nominees,” Graves said. “It isn’t OK.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Sinema’s party affiliation.