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Neera Tanden is first Indian American to head major Washington-based think-tank

Last updated on: October 25, 2011 19:25 IST

Neera Tanden has been named as the first Indian-American head of a major Washington, DC-based think-tank, reports Aziz Haniffa

Neera Tanden, 41, a former senior Obama administration official and an erstwhile close aide and confidante of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her days as First Lady, US senator and then during her presidential campaign, will soon take over as president of the Center for American Progress, making her the first-ever Indian American to head up a major Washington, DC-based think-tank.

Tanden, who was a key protagonist in developing President Obama's healthcare reform proposals -- the Affordable Care Act -- during her tenure in the Obama administration, will succeed the founder and president of CAP, John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff and the head of President Obama's transition team.

When Tanden takes over the helm on November 1, Podesta will remain at CAP as non-executive chairman of the board and as a sort of president emeritus of the progressive think-tank with over 250 policy analysts and researchers, many of whom served in the Clinton administration, and which has also served as a reservoir for many Obama administration appointees.

In an interview with, Tanden, currently chief operating officer at CAP, said, "My focus will be on creating policy solutions, not just for 2012, but for 2013 and 2020."

She said it was imperative that "progressives need to provide bolder solutions to the nation's problem. Clearly, there is a dissatisfaction with the limited debates in Washington."

Tanden said, "While CAP will remain engaged in the day to day fights, we must also ensure we're developing policy solutions on the nation's most pressing problem -- spurring economic growth now and for years to come, developing a national security strategy that fits the constrained budget we face, ensuring the American dream is alive and well for our children."

"Answering those bigger national challenges is what CAP is best at," she said, and added: "We have never been about just changing the conversation. We want to change the country for the better. And that will be my goad as well as president -- building on John Podesta's tremendous success."

Tanden noted that the "CAP has a unique role in Washington as a force for progressive policies and its impact has been felt on almost every progressive change that has come from Washington, and I am honoured by the faith place in me by the board to continue CAP's record of success."

She acknowledged that the 2012 president election "will be a critical time for the country as it faces a stark choice of two different visions for the country."

"One vision will expand opportunity for all Americans, the other vision will contract it so America becomes more of a place between the haves and have-nots," she said. "It's clear what side will CAP be on."

Tanden reiterated that "while we work on bigger, longer term policy solutions, we will not lose sight of the important fights of the day. We will continue to engage conservative policy-makers -- whether they are presidential candidates of members of congress or advocates -- critiquing their policy solutions and exposing their limited vision for our country."

On her creating history by becoming the first Indian-American and also the first second-generation Indian American born and raised in the US to take the helm of a major think-tank, Tanden acknowledged, "As an Indian American woman, I do not fit the traditional notion of a head of an organisation."

"And that is why, this is also a tribute to how much progress our country has made," she said, and pointed out, "The fact that an Indian woman who was on welfare as a child can rise to this role says less about me and more about America, our policies, the value we place on giving everyone a shot at making a difference."

This was why, Tanden said, "It is so important to me that CAP itself work on ensuring opportunity for all Americans."

When her father left her mother and her when Tanden was just five, they sunk into abject poverty and had to sustain themselves as welfare recipients.

She managed to remain in the public schools in the affluent Boston, Massachusetts, suburb of Bedford, thanks to a programme that offered faster building permits to developers to included low-income housing units in their developments.

Tanden then went on to gain admission to the University of California, Los Angeles, from where she received her bachelor of science degree and then on to Yale Law School  from where she received her JD.

Gene Sperling, director of President Obama's National Economic Council said, "She is highly skilled at how to make as big an impact on the direction of progressive policy from outside the government as inside the government."

Before she joined her former boss then Senator Clinton's presidential campaign as her confidante and adviser with the title of policy director, Tanden worked at CAP as a senior vice president for academic affairs.

After Clinton lost her bid for the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama and advised all of her top aides to join the Obama campaign, Tanden jumped on board the Obama campaign bandwagon as domestic policy director and on Obama being elected president, found herself being offered a job to be a top health care adviser in the new administration.

At the time Tanden joined CAP after a year in the Obama administration for a position especially created for her as COO, Podesta, in announcing her appointment, said, "When CAP existed only on paper, Neera had a vision and great instincts for how a serious idea-based institution could play an important role shaping the national debate and the policy that it yielded."

He said, "Her early leadership helped lay the foundation for making CAP the strong institution it is today. But we are not standing still. We are thrilled to have Neera back on board, assuming a central management role, as American Progress enters the next phase of its continuing growth, maturity and evolution."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC