Vilsack and Obama: Farmer in Chief my Ass!

Sharon December 17th, 2008

So Tom Vilsack is going to be Secretary of Agriculture, hmmm… Let’s see, rabid ethanol proponent…check!  Enthusiastic supporter of GMOs and biotechnologies…check!  Totally indebted to and under the thumb of agribusiness…check!  Yup, it seems clear that Obama really took Michael Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” piece to heart ;-P.  Short of actually appointing, say, Monsanto’s chairman, it is hard to imagine a choice less likely to make real shifts in our food system. 

But of course, as Rod Dreher points out (quite correctly) and as Carolyn Baker points out (equally correctly), so far there’s very little from the Obama administration that should make us feel secure that what’s coming is going to shift the status quo.  Ultimately, Hillary, Geithner and the rest of the crew mostly can be described as people who did things not as badly as George W. Bush and his primary appointees – but that’s hardly saying anything of note.

I was in college when Bill Clinton was elected president, and I was almost alone in my social circle in refusing to volunteer for him – I’d supported a more leftist candidate in the primaries, and despite my acute desire to believe that Clinton would offer some kind of radical change, I couldn’t quite shake the reality of his positions out of my thinking.  The same is true of Obama, who, for example, wrote of dealing with the mortgage crisis in terms of the moral hazard of bailing out homeowners – but appears to have few qualms about bailing out banks.

 I had precisely the same feeling during this campaign – I preferred Obama quite dramatically to Hillary Clinton, and there were genuinely moments of hopefulness in his campaign.  But I kept thinking, riffing on the late, great Molly Ivins, that you have to dance with them that brung you.  That is, Obama couldn’t possibly come to power without indebting himself to people who are more invested in the status quo than in improving lives.

In order to be the president many of us hoped Obama would be, he would have to be willing to betray many of the people who brought him, and their hopes and investments in his future.  This is no easy feat for anyone, and is probably less so for someone who came so far, so fast, with the hand of so many.  It isn’t impossible – other presidents have done it. The man isn’t even president yet.

But presidents are known by the company they keep – the reality is that no man can supervise all the elements of the nation alone – they depend enormously on those people that Obama is appointing right now.  He will not be out in the fields, or at the soup kitchens – he will rely on reports and summaries from those he appoints. And those summaries will be given by men whose viewpoints are already formed.  Vilsack cannot but describe our food system through the lens of his prior investments, and this will be disastrous.

In 2002, the Atlantic ran a story by Mark Bowden called “Tales of the Tyrant” – it described what it was like to be a dictator, and imagined how Saddam Hussein’s situation must lead inevitably to his downfall.  The deepest reason, Bowden argued, was that everyone lied to the dictator all the time – they couldn’t do anything else.

I’ve thought of that story a number of times in relationship to various presidencies.  It is true that our presidents don’t routinely throw advisors who tell unpleasant truths into jail – but even the best of them are surrounded, not so much by people who lie all the time, but by people who tell their truth as though it were “the” truth.  To some degree, of course, this is inevitable – everyone’s worldview is shaped by their experiences.  But it is possible to bring in a diversity of viewpoints, to find, in multiple versions of the truth, something closer to reality.  Obama has overwhelmingly chosen one, very narrow set of viewpoints – the viewpoints of people who have power now, and to whom he is already indebted for his power.

I don’t claim that there is no hope for Obama, but before he chose these people to surround him, there was hope that an ordinary man of integrity, hearing a range of viewpoints, might choose something different.  Now, we have to imagine that Obama is an extraordinary man, one with the power to find unconventional paths to knowledge, and the willingness to override the viewpoints he has invested himself in.  It gets harder to hope for change.


82 Responses to “Vilsack and Obama: Farmer in Chief my Ass!”

  1. vera says:

    This is the best rant and comments I have seen anywhere yet. Thanks, everybody. Greenpa’s point is interesting, but is basically this wild hope that Obama has something very different in mind than he is showing. Are there any indications whatsoever this might be the case? I have not seen them. So far, he’s shown to be a speechifier, with nothing much to say apart from the “hopeful” stuff and slogans. Now that he is actually acting, it looks BAU. My take is he is really Hillary in pants. Obummer. I am grieving for what could have been.

  2. Barbara G. Ellis says:

    Let’s not forget that all these boys and girls have to be confirmed.

    I recall one Secretary of Ag nominee so despised by departmental folk that they fed definitive and revealing questions to key committeemen to ask during confirmation hearings. They did and though the guy was confirmed, those questions were so seered into his brain that he shifted his thinking.

    We might not be so lucky as to have those Ag people still around, but we also didn’t have dailykos then to raise holy hell so this chap goes down in flames or is sustained with a seered brain when the committee votes. We do now, however, and hundreds of other blogs like Huff. And plenty of small farmers who can raise a ruckus.

    Let’s fill those websites on fire with what’s been written above and genetically modify Vilsack’s agricultural policies.

  3. Jill Wiest says:

    Lets not be to quick to write Obama off… he’s done all the right things thus far and this one blip on the radar screen may not be a blip at all – you know Obama will have Vilsack doing exactly what HE thinks is best. And it appears the subsidy reduction to agribusiness will be the first route they’ll take. That subsidy reduction could be the writing on the wall for many of the big farmers. Lets take it one step at a time.

  4. Organic Libertarian Farmer says:

    I think that for those who voted for Obama’s, “hope” and “change” got their hope for a few months. The hype that they bought for the hope that they got will turn to hatred and impotent rage by the end of 2009. Obama got his following so fired up about change that, no matter who he is and what he does he won’t meet their expectations. He can not change the structure of our society or government. Frankly, I don’t think he had any true idea of how he was going to do it anyway, even if he did buy his own slogans.

    Our only hope is to one-on-one, through family relationships, friendships and neighbors collectively thinking about others before ourselves. Then change will happen.

    If the US had voted republican, we would have gotten something somewhat predictable but in the end similar to what we have now.

    To the person who said that republicans will mandate a religion, I totally disagree. Republicans, for all their problems do not get “involved” as much as democrats in peoples lives. The involvement that strips away all the rights that we have and the money that we earn for redistribution. Charity, and a lot of it, is the only redistribution that we need in this country.

  5. Sharon says:

    Again, I think it is an oversimplification to say that this is about whether Obama has failed or succeeded yet. For me, the issue is this – as someone pointed out, these are very complex systems, and he will see them in part through the lenses he chooses. It does not mean that Obama is hopeless – it simply means that it got harder for him to see what is happening clearly. I don’t think anyone expected Obama to “fix” things – but there are ways to make what is coming less painful and ways to make the situation more dire. I think the latter may have just happened, unless Obama is able to avoid using Vilsack as a lens.

    I agree strongly – oppose Vilsack’s confirmation, and yes, there are a lot of lesser posts to be filled (I’m not convinced I’m qualified to fill any of them, but I appreciate the compliment ;-) ) – I’d love to see the USDA stacked with small farmers! Deploring a choice isn’t the same as throwing up one’s hands.


  6. Rebecca says:

    I never held the same kind of hopes for Obama that most liberals and progressives have. I’ve long realized that there is one party in this country -the one with the biggest checkbook, and the Republicans and Democrats are just versions that act a little differently.
    However, I was physically ill when I heard this news. Talk about making a bad choice!
    Then this morning I heard on NPR that he’s chosen Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inaugeration. I also got ill when I heard that, and now I am angry. That man is not only a nasty SOB, but choosing him is like a slap in the face to every LGBT and non-Christian in the country, and also the more moderate Christians who don’t think they can/should run the world, etc.

  7. Christy O says:

    This is why I didn’t support Obama during the election. No one who has had so much help from insiders getting where they are is going to bring about any real change. Cheney applauded Obama’s choice for security team, is this really what we want? I wish I could say I was surprised that so many people gave into the hype during the campaign…

  8. The trouble with idealism is that it is so easily disappointed. I voted for Obama- to get the pendulum to start swinging in the opposite direction again. Have you ever tried to stop a clock’s pendulum? If you want the clock to keep running while doing it you don’t stop it abruptly, you slow it down until it can be gently pushed in the other direction. Only when its going the other direction can it pick up speed. But it can’t go fast in one direction and immediately go fast in the other. If you do that, you break the clock.

    This country is made up of all kinds of folks with radically different views across a long spectrum. If we stop and really think about that, we can begin to marvel that anything constructive gets done at all, anywhere, ever! While it is a great big wonderful dream to have the Left suddenly be IN CHARGE and making changes, we cannot suddenly do that without throwing the whole country into chaos and filled with hateful rhetoric. We need all the energy to be focused for positivity! I still feel hope about Obama and what he can do. We’ve had nearly a decade of right wing neo-con policies. There was a huge segment of this country that backed those policies and are still clinging to those policies. They have not gone extinct. There are still neo-cons in positions of power, not necessarily only positions in Government. Obama has to get everyone rowing in the same direction. But first he has to get them to stop arguing, sit down in the boat and pick up the oars!

    You ARE seeing change with these appointments. A move to the center. There is an openness to consider all sides and an effort to include folks from all parts of the spectrum, even the Rick Warren invocation at Obama’s inaugrual. (Just as Obama didn’t believe everything Rev. Wright preached, he doesn’t believe everything Warren believes. According to custom, somebody has to do the invocation. Whomever is chosen SOMEBODY will be angry.Heck I’m sure there’s plenty of people angry that there will be a religious element involved at all!) These appointments might not be the radical changes some folks are demanding. But there’s over 300 million people in this country. We’ll need everyone on board to keep afloat in the future. Reach across the isle and talk to your opposite. You may find common ground that we can all walk on to go forward and transform our lives. Start at the center, the widest place.

    I totally agree with Greenpa. Yes, Gorbachev! (But now look at how far Putin has brought it back towards the good old KBG days, sigh.)
    Pragmatism is called for now. Its really the only way to get that pendulum slowing down before it can swing in the opposite direction. With each national crisis erupting, we MUST have some center point on which we can all stand if we are not to tip into the water and capsize ourselves – as a nation and a people.

  9. vera says:

    Another thought re greenpa’s Gorbachev idea. He opened things up, but the Soviet Union could not be reformed and fell apart. It’s since been the mafia and ex-KGB types running it. A lot of plunder gone on. The little people squeezed into poverty while others fatten themselves western-style. Is this the improvement Russians wished for? Some of it, perhaps. But for most of it, I doubt it. I have even heard people say that it had all been planned as plan B from inside the KGB when the Soviet economy faltered. The West and its democracy did not win: kleptocracy won. As they have been for 6,000 years.

  10. texicali says:

    Good points Greenpa and Young Snowbird. Also, if you get a chance Mike Pollan was on NPR this morning talking about the Vilsack nomination. Not happy about it, but a good deal more measured than most of us. Pointed out that the Sec of Energy choice is against corn ethanol, which balances Vilsack’s and Obama’s historical position on that boondoggle.

    As for all the folks saying how do you like your change now I think Young Snowbird already said it well. But I will toss in my two cents. McCain and Palin????? We would be better off with the a petulant geezer and a know-nothing twit? Only if you are of the persuasion that what we really need is a quick dramatic crash that quickly leads to pitchforks and torches followed by a military lockdown and dictatorship. Get a little perspective.

  11. lizzie says:

    He is not going to please everyone all the time like all of us would like. Let develop out attention span, please. The guy hasnt even been sworn in. Vilsac has some pro and cons and Rome wasnt built in a day………………….Lets just wait and see what unfolds and support our president in the meantime.

  12. Greenpa says:

    Vera- re Gorbachev. Yup. He couldn’t control it well enough, in the long run. My understanding is that the big bozo who replaced him was playing to the crowd’s demand for more change, faster; more democracy now. Gorbachev wanted to go slower – and they all lost it. People will be analyzing that one forever.

    Sharon, you commented that IF what I’m hoping is true, even so, what Obama is doing- is dangerous.

    Your darn tooten it’s dangerous. I’m astonished Gorbachev is still alive. And also in the way you meant- these are all processes that are extraordinarily difficult to control.

    But it’s worth a try, I think. Or do we give up? For me, just as there is no point whatever in pessimism, there is also no point whatever in giving up.

    As soon as Obama calls and asks me to joint his cabinet- I’m going. :-)

  13. kmm says:

    I think what people really failed to analyze was the president-elect’s roots. I’m not talking familialy … I’m talking about his political roots. Who did he hang out with and where and how did they get their power? Who were his associates and what actions did they take?

    Where did he come from and how successfuly was he there? Chicago, home of thug politics. You dont’ make it there unless you play the game(s).

    I believe that like many “rock star” situations, that the people around Mr. Obama fed him just the right amount of stuff to get him addicted to the good feelings. Now, the time to pay will be coming shortly. Mr. Obama has made the decisions, yes, but for how long will he remain in control. Or, put another way, how long until he is just a figurehead?

    He came to power on the backs of the far left … he will turn his back on them and remain in power on the backs of the remainder of his party. And for at least the next two years he will indeed be in power because the current Congress will not want to be seen as villifying the people’s “Messiah” or risking the same title of bigot, etc. that they heaped on those who opposed Mr. Obama’s election.

    In two years however, it is extremely possible that he will have made enough enemies of enough people that at the very least the make up of Congress will shift. Then we will see what he is really made of. How will he work if the Congress opposes him?

    As for the Rick Warren thing? Not to be racist but did you expect anything less? Mr. Obama had to respond to the African American vote on the issue definition of marriage. That is one sector of his voting block he can’t afford to alienate … yet.

  14. Aaron says:

    From Wiki:

    “Hope was personified in Greek mythology as Elpis. When Pandora opened Pandora’s Box, she let out all the evils except one: hope. Apparently, the Greeks considered hope to be as dangerous as all the world’s evils.”

    Politics in this country largely, characterized by a false contest between Republican and Democrat and continually hyped by a media show, serves to convince 99% percent of the people that they have some say in the structure of power.

    The other 1% pay for false contest and the media blitz… from Wiki:

    “In the United States at the end of 2001, 10% of the population owned 71% of the wealth, and the top 1% controlled 38%”

  15. Gen says:

    Greenpa said, “As soon as Obama calls and asks me to joint his cabinet- I’m going.”

    It looks like if you were part of the Clinton reign, you will get that call. It certainly would increase your odds.

  16. Christy O says:

    Why does everyone seem to think our only choices were Obama or McCain? There were other people running, there are other parties in this country. The sooner people really realize and embrace that, the better we all will be.

  17. Greenpa says:

    Gen- alas- the only time I tried to really talk to the Clinton people- the blew me off. :-)

  18. I must be tired, because I keep reading the title of this post as “Farmer Chief in my Ass!”

    Anyway, I’m with Greenpa. Not the part about being blown by the Clinton people, but about the Vilsack choice. As someone else mentioned, the new Sec. of Energy will nicely balance out any ethanol madness (at least for corn). And, I’d hesitate to totally judge a person by their past policies – local politics and national politics are totally different animals. There are a lot more pressures and politics to balance outside of a state’s interests. I think we’ll see a broader viewpoint from Vilsack on the national stage.

    I think a big part of the disappointment with this appointment is that people got their shorts a little too tightly knotted over the idea of getting an actual Farmer-in-Chief as Sec. of Ag, or even this whole Michael Pollan for Sec of Ag business. It’s just not very realistic when you step back and look at it. It sounds really nice in theory, but one does need to work within the system that’s in place and, unfortunately, a politician is more likely to be effective in that role than a farmer or investigative journalist.

  19. Sharon says:

    I don’t think anyone who was serious thought Michael Pollan would be Sec. of Ag. My reference to “farmer in chief” was Obama’s claim that he’d read it and took it seriously. The problem with Vilsac is that he’s not a mediocre choice – he’s a really bad one. Sure, local politics are different, and if it were just the ethanol thing, you’d have to give him a pass – being a midwesterner in the Us means supporting ethanol or not being elected. But Vilsack think that biotech is the way to deal with the food crisis. And that’s just scary.

    Greenpa, Obama, given your theory, had the chance to also begin the way he meant to go on – there were plenty of more moderate people who wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. I have to say, I agree with David Roberts over at grist who, when you put together the aggregate of Obama’s recent appointments, noted that between Vilsack, Salazar and the rest “Obama really peed in the cornflakes.” I don’t think this is at all about idealism – but we’ve also been down this road before with Bill Clinton, who my friend (who means it as a compliment) calls “The best republican president of our century.” We can’t afford another liberal republican – and I think we need a clear eyed judgement of this guy *by his actions* not by what we hope his actions might concievably mean if we’re lucky.


  20. Sharon says:

    BTW, if Obama thinks he bought Iowa for four years from now, he’s not nearly as smart as I think he is. Four years is a long, long time in the scheme of things. But to his credit, I doubt that’s his reasoning.

    On the other hand, I’m quite pleased with his labor choice.


  21. Ellamir says:

    Greenpa, thank you! You bring up excellent points and are the only person whos comments I’ve read so far who has projected any kind of optimism or positivity whatsoever. Have a little faith people!

    And hey, try living in Canada and having George Bush the second running your country. You guys are a hell of a lot better off than we are! I wish you would all stop pissing in the cornflakes and try to see the sunshine for once. As far as I can see, Obama is the best thing that’s happened to your country in what seems like forever. Just be thankful that you have someone running your country that has integrity, intelligence, and charisma.


  22. Ellamir says:

    Young Snowbird, I just read your post and it was fantastic. One of the parts that struck a cord with me is when you spoke of optimism. I think it’s really important that we project optimism and good vibes into the world as a way of creating change and impacting our collective consciousness for the good. If we continually spread pessimism we’re going to get what we put out. What you focus on natuarally expands…so if we put our focus on what is positive we can impact change. This is about a massive consciousness shift for our species, one which, if we manage it, could save us and our planet. We’ve almost reached the tipping point between extinction and survival and once we pass that point there’s no going back. So rather than complaining about what’s “wrong” with Obama’s choices I would rather continue to project good energy towards a positive change for the world. I feel like he’s the kind of president who actually listens to the people and who has a plan for how to bring about this radical change that he’s talked about. No one ever said it would be an easy process and the man has ALOT of crazy shit to deal with here. I know I would never want to be in his shoes! I guess we’ll see how he does with the challenges that he’s facing now, but I don’t understand why Americans would choose to throw stones at someone who hasn’t even had a chance to prove himself yet. Like I said before, our country was in the best position economically of any country in the world, and most of our progress was ruined by a man who mirrors George Bush’s ideals and methods. You should be happy that you have a man with the light of intelligence in his eye. He didn’t bring America to it’s present state of economic disaster. Essentially, the American people allowed it to happen by voting George W. into office for two consecutive terms. Now you’ve made a different choice and all of us up here in Canada have been cheering you on for months now. We wish with all of our hearts that we could have someone like Barack Obama leading our country. I know it may sound like a “fluffy” sentiment, but I truly believe that the energy we project into the world creates our present and future circumstances. So I choose to project nothing but positivity towards a president that I truly believe has what it takes to help turn our world around and prevent mass extinction of our species.

    If I turn out to be wrong I’ll admit it, but for now…GIVE THE MAN A BREAK!

  23. Vegan says:

    Vilsac was an extremely horrible choice. It demonstrates that Obama has no understanding of the benefits of organic foods/agriculture and the evils of genetically modified seeds/foods.

    Those who don’t understand Obama’s outrageous choice must check out the following site:

  24. Crimson says:

    I still can’t shake the image of Obama at his first press conference, right after the election. The look on his face. It was right after he got his economic and security brief. I still wonder (and can imagine) what did they tell him. Hey “new” boss – its gonna be ugly?

    So – I found your website for the first time. I am returning to my roots. My parents grew up with agriculture. I grew up with it. As they moved out of it, I moved out of it. Now I have a big enough yard for full blown gardening. I’ve built my first four raised garden beds. I’ve been stocking up on seeds for three years (and testing longevity of the seeds). And I’ve planted fruit trees. And will plant more. Somehow, me, my wife, and my wonderful children have found something lost. I get so many strange comments from the people I work with. You do what? They let you do that in surburbia? Your HOA lets you farm? That’s right folks. I know how to grow food. And its not menial. Its ok to take pride in producing one’s own food (by letting Mother Nature let the sun shine down and help grow things for you).

    I’ve always known we’ve built a house of cards. My father told me if too many people weren’t growing their own food and we had another depression, it would be ugly. He plowed fields using a heavy draught horse before he switched to tractors. It seems we’re witnessing the systematic decline of all our institutions. Homeschool is on the rise ( a good thing – educating your child is a civic duty – and civil right!). People are rediscovering gardening/farming. We are on the verge (I hope) of a renaissance in local cottage industries, manufacturing, and machinists. It will take time. And it will take a little more oil before a basic level of alt-energy production is in place.

    Did you know you can take magnets out of old harddrives to make generators, if you have mechanical energy (flowing water, wind, bicycle) to spin it? It takes alot of magnets from certain types of drives. But it can be done.

    There has to be a conscious effort to embrace real diversity. Diversity of thought, ideas, and problem solving. The one size fits all is too mono-culture. And dangerous. Living off oil is no different from when the Irish lived off one cultivar of potato.

    Its all about time (running out), oil (the last of the easy oil), and will there be a rapid enough push for diverse solutions to mitigate the risk of collapse. Do we have enough and can it be done?

    Congratulations Obama. You might be tied with President #1 (Washington) and President #16 (Lincoln) as the most important Presidents in American history. One was pivotal in its creation. The other saved it. Obama has to do both.

  25. Joe from Canada says:

    The dismal verbiage tossed toward President Elect Obama is among what is merely the last dark and dreary gasps of cyncism we of spirit have had to endure during eight years of a plastic presidency.

    This man’s humanity is never going to discourage those of us who have read his spirit with our own. Obama has never claimed to be some sort of modern day, all powerful political or social Messiah. No doiubt we will discover things about him that may shatter the illusions of those who feel as much. Will he make mistakes? Of course he will. Is he perfect? Of course not.

    But Obama has allowed himself to be carried by our collective desire for a power that’s married to intelligence and heart. This force has always proven to be greater than any one personality. And it has expressed itself through people like Thomas Jefferson (Human), Martin Luther King Jr. (Human) and Ghandi (Human). This power, this force, is unstoppable. It animates the fabric of our existence. And it has and will continue to animate Barack Obama.

    Barak is ours. It’s Obama time. All you haters, please feel free to bubble and blurb your flatulent verbs.

    Spirit and life have once again returned to the halls of power and those of us who like things like trees and water celebrate. When power is married to greed, backward thinking and a basically murderous ignorance, the very cells of our being quake. But now we’re breathing and basking in the long awaited air of “Aaaah!”.

  26. greentangle says:

    I love trees and water; I’m just not naive enough to think that Obama or anyone else is capable of preventing what has always been the inevitable and necessary collapse of industrialism, materialism, and human overpopulation. Obama won’t cure it any more than Bush caused it.

  27. Green Bean says:

    Sharon, you sum up exactly how I’m feeling about Obama. The choice of Vilsack was truly awful and only slightly worse than some of his previous choices. It is becoming harder to hope but I don’t see what choice we have but to hope, lobby, write letters, prepare our own veggie gardens, and vote with our forks and our dollars.

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