In appointing Tom Vilsack to resume his post as Secretary of Agriculture, President-elect Joe Biden has taken a significant step in putting farmers and ranchers at ease that a dependable hand will be guiding the Department of Agriculture.
During his eight-year tenure as USDA boss under then-President Barack Obama, Vilsack was the voice of agriculture for the administration. In an administration that often proffered policies that were hostile to the interests of agriculture, Vilsack was an advocate for the industry.
Before joining the administration, Vilsack served eight years as governor of Iowa. That’s a largely rural state where farming and food processing make up more than 10% of the economy and one-in-six jobs.
He remained an advocate for corn-based ethanol, production agriculture and the beef industry, much to the chagrin of many leftwing advocates.
The ag secretary is of obvious importance to the industry, responsible for food policy, ag research, market regulation, nutrition programs and the farm safety net. The ag secretary doesn’t control trade policy, doesn’t set the agenda on climate change and doesn’t manage labor regulators. Nonetheless, Vilsack will have a seat at the table where those things are decided.
After his first tenure at USDA ended, Vilsack was involved in an effort to move the Democrat Party to the center to appeal to the concerns of rural voters. That turned out to be a quixotic campaign as the party swung to the far left in the era of the Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. But, the effort was noteworthy in that it focused on practical, dinner table issues.
Vilsack has no shortage of detractors on the left who think he’s a bagman for “big ag” and “corporate farmers.” But, we suspect the Biden administration is mindful that the party and the president-elect don’t enjoy widespread support in rural America. Vilsack’s appointment will do him no harm in that quarter.
The reaction from ag groups has been overwhelmingly supportive. The Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, the Grange, wheat growers, cattlemen, pork producers and the Organic Trade Association all sang Vilsack’s praises, largely based on their experience from his prior tenure.
Commonsense tells us that past performance is not always an indication of future results. Cabinet posts are political appointments and politics are, well, politics.
That said, we can’t think of a better choice than Vilsack to lead the Department of Agriculture.