Neera Tanden, the 1988 Bedford High School graduate who is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, has literally helped frame national policy from a front-row seat for well over two decades.
Tanden is president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. She previously served as senior adviser for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Before that, Tanden was director of domestic policy for the Obama-Biden presidential campaign. She was policy director for Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, legislative director in Sen. Clinton’s office, issues director for Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, and an associate director for domestic policy in former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
If you peel back the pages of her resume far enough, there’s a Bedford childhood story that pretty much shaped her worldview – because it was an experience of people and programs helping others in need.
“I have such wonderful memories of growing up in Bedford,” Tanden said in a telephone interview from Washington Tuesday. “I am incredibly grateful to the community for being such a supportive place.”
Tanden still recalls her journey that began almost 50 years ago. “My parents moved to Bedford in the early 70s and we lived on Dutton Lane. But they divorced when I was five.”
Her mother, she continued, “faced a really tough choice. She could go back to India, but being divorced and having us as children, we would have faced a lot of stigma. Or she could stay in the U.S., in Bedford, and go on welfare.”
And then came what she described as “an incredibly fortuitous development.” Bedford Village, the first privately-built rental housing in the state under affordable housing legislation known as Chapter 40B, was ready to open on Dunster Road.
Mrs. Tanden, her daughter Neera, and her son Raj were among the first tenants. “I still have memories of seeing a lot of empty apartments,” Tanden said.
“We struggled, and my mom was on welfare,” she continued. “I remember being in the line at Davis School using coupons for free and reduced-price lunch. I remember using food stamps at Purity Supreme – they looked like fake money.”
Tanden also has strong memories of assistance from Bedford neighbors. “When we moved in to the apartment, people from the Unitarian Church helped us with the furniture.”
“I would not be where I am if not for the Bedford Public Schools,” she continued. “When we moved to Bedford there were a handful of families of color, and I really felt there were teachers who enveloped me. I was struggling. It was hard at home. I frankly felt a great deal of support at school.”
“I had fantastic teachers who encouraged me, fantastic classmates. Without them I would not have gone to UCLA, or made it to Yale Law School.”
She mentioned the particular influence of Bedford High School social studies teacher John Reynolds. “I always had an interest in government and public policy, but his history class really made my interests flourish,” she testified. “He had classes where he connected history to current events – I remember debating issues on the Middle East and civil rights.” Reynolds was a Vietnam veteran and “we talked about the costs of war.”
“We all had to do significant papers, and I did it on the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, with the focus on nonviolence and the connection between Martin Luther King and Gandhi. It was great for me having that connection to Gandhi. I still remember that paper. I really feel a debt of gratitude to the teacher.”
Tanden noted that she recently heard from former fifth and fourth grade teachers on her Twitter feed.
Are students at BHS more cynical about the role of government today? If they are, “I understand,” Tanden commented. “Politics have gotten very polarized and divisive.”
“But look,” she said she would tell them, “I benefited from government programs that worked well for people, and I am privileged to be working on it to help people.”
She recounted a personal experience. “In 2017 I was at one of the rallies we had to protect the Affordable Care Act and we were really trying to emphasize how much it was working to help people. It was a great privilege of my career to work for President Obama to pass the ACA, and I felt passionate about protecting the law.
“After I spoke,” she continued, “I came off the stage and a man walked up to me, maybe in his 60s. He showed me a scar on his upper chest and said he came to this rally, driving from hours away, because he believed the ACA saved his life. He had worked his whole life but could never afford health insurance and when the ACA passed, he got insurance and made a doctor’s appointment immediately. It turned out he needed heart surgery — and he got it because he was covered. He came to the event because he wanted to protect that for millions of other people.
“I feel it was a great honor and privilege that I was able to participate in legislation that has actually made that difference in people’s lives,” Tanden declared. “The reason the Office of Management and Budget is so important and so critical is because it is the agency within the government that helps ensure policies and programs are delivering results for people, whether economic recovery or education or fighting the virus. The OMB makes sure we are spending our resources efficiently and effectively.”
Progressive ideology, Tanden said, involves “working with other people in groups, working collectively to solve a problem that the community faces.”
“I benefited from my mother’s grit and perseverance, but also people came together and decided to create programs that would provide opportunities to kids like me – whether Section 8 housing or great public schools or food stamps. I benefited from all that.”
She struck a tone of accommodation. “It’s a responsibility and a privilege to work to solve problems together. I hope to do that in ways that bring all kinds of people together. This is such an important moment in time, and I hope we can have a restored sense of unity to address problems that we are facing.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763
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Correction, 12.30.2020: The Tanden family moved to Bedford in the 1970s; they did not arrive in the US then, as the article first stated.