Joe Biden plans to make Obama aide Tom Vilsack agriculture secretary again, pro-reformers express reservations

Vilsack, who served at the same post for both the terms of Barack Obama, prevailed over Marcia Fudge who had the backing of the Black voices


                            Joe Biden plans to make Obama aide Tom Vilsack agriculture secretary again, pro-reformers express reservations
Tom Vilsack and president-elect Joe Biden (Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden has stressed that his administration should not be seen as a “third term” of former president Barack Obama. However, the 78-year-old former vice-president has so far picked a number of faces who have been associated with the Obama administration in the past. Biden has also been under pressure from both the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party when it comes to choosing his administrative officials.

The veteran leader has now decided to nominate yet another Obama-time official as his secretary of agriculture and it is none other than Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa who had also served as Obama’s agriculture secretary for both his terms (2009-17). Vilsack resigned a week prior to the conclusion of Obama’s second and final term and had been the only member of the Cabinet who had served since the day Obama took office in 2009. In 2016, he also came close to becoming Hillary Clinton’s running mate till Tim Kaine was picked.

If confirmed, Vilsack will not be the first Cabinet official to do the same job in different administrations. James “Tama Jim” Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who was based in Iowa, had held the post of the agriculture secretary for 16 years (1897-1913) under four presidents -- William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

The agriculture department is known for its role in supporting farmers but it also has a key responsibility like funding food-aid programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school meals. According to the department’s estimates, one in four Americans benefits from at least one of these food programs. By choosing Vilsack, Biden conveyed the message that he trusts a time-tested face to manage the role.

Heidi Heitkamp and Marcia Fudge (Getty Images)

Race was between Heidi Heitkamp and Marcia Fudge

But Biden also serves a political purpose by going for Vilsack, who turns 70 next Sunday, December 13. The moderate and progressive wings have been racing against each other to find a face of their choice at the helm of the agriculture department. Traditional farm lobby outfits have backed former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp while pro-reformers, who want the department to tackle hunger and climate change, have sought Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge.

Biden eventually picked Fudge as the secretary of housing and urban development, the first women of color to head the agency since the 1970s. Heavyweight Black Democratic leader James Clyburn, who played a key role behind Biden’s comeback in the primaries earlier this year, threw his weight behind the 68-year-old veteran. The Congressional Black Congress also wanted Fudge as the agriculture secretary to see the department giving the message that it was focused more on serving the consumers than producers, Axios reported.

Not all impressed with Vilsack pick

But Biden might still find it smooth after picking Vilsack. According to one report in National Public Radio, the president-elect hoped that the warring camps’ tug-of-war over the next agriculture secretary would have been resolved with his pick but that might not be the case.

Vilsack is currently the chief executive of the US Dairy Export Council, which is backed by the dairy industry, and those seeking reforms in the agriculture department to help poorer Americans accused the former of working in favor of large corporate firms. “Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants - some of whom he has gone to work for,” Mitch Jones, policy director for Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, was quoted as saying by the NPR report.

Ricardo Salvador, director of food and environment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, conceded that Vilsack did the job of the agriculture secretary well in the past but also cautioned that the situation now demands new measures. “If we measure what we need against what he accomplished, he falls short,” Salvador was quoted as saying. Vilsack, who was born in Pittsburgh and trained as a lawyer, became the mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1987 after the murder of its incumbent mayor Ed King in 1986. He became more acquainted with agriculture during his stint as the governor of the Hawkeye State (1999-2007).

In the past couple of years, farmers were busy coping with the impact of the Donald Trump administration’s trade war and battle with the coronavirus pandemic. The current secretary, Sonny Perdue, sent them a record-upsetting government aid. In 2020 alone, direct federal payments to the farmers are expected to touch $46 billion, far more than the amount of farm subsidies in any of the previous years.

Perdue has been less enthusiastic, however, about things like the SNAP and school meals and tried to restrict the SNAP benefits to non-disabled adults without dependents (even though the move was stopped when the pandemic broke out). His times also saw the department controversially discouraging research on climate change and now, with the change of guards imminent, voices are growing to see the department reassess its priorities.

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