Published on: 11:16AM Dec 18, 2008
Farmers have been looking for a friend in Barack Obama’s cabinet, and this week they appear to have found one or two. But we could use a third.
On Wednesday, Obama introduced Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, as his pick to become the next Secretary of Agriculture. The president-elect also announced Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado as his selection for Secretary of the Interior.
These choices send a reassuring signal to farmers who have recently grown uneasy about the composition of the incoming administration. Even so, Obama has yet to fill the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. We are all counting on him to make a sensible decision.
Obama’s initial cabinet nominations, involving economic policy and national security, demonstrated a healthy commitment to centrism and even bipartisanship. Then the president-elect seemed to lurch to the left with the so-called ‘Green Team’, whose members include Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, Lisa Jackson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Carol Browner and Nancy Sutley as top White House advisors.
Ronald Reagan used to joke that the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Many farmers worry that the Green Team’s vision of “helping” agriculture includes burdensome regulations and sky-high gas and energy prices. As we confront the global recession and food crisis, farmers and consumers alike will need policies that boost productivity rather than depress it.
Vilsack and Salazar will make sure that when the Obama cabinet meets, farmers will have a place at the table. It remains to be seen how potential disagreements with the Green Team are settled, but for the time being farmers can take comfort in knowing that their voices at least will be heard. (In the end, all disagreements are settled by the President)
Vilsack, in particular, will play a key role. Although he’s not a farmer himself, he understands farming in all of its dimensions. He’s a strong advocate of biotechnology, from the importance of GM crops to the promise of alternative fuels. Last year, he ran a climate-change panel that recommended the gradual elimination of subsidies for certain biofuels and the lowering of tariffs on Brazilian sugar ethanol.
He’s also a supporter of free trade, which is so vital to American farmers. We depend heavily on overseas customers, and rely on political leaders in Washington to expand export opportunities through smart diplomacy. But it’s primarily up to the U.S. Trade Representative--not the Secretary of Agriculture--to make sure America’s rural economy remains plugged into the global marketplace.
Earlier this month, Obama invited Rep. Xavier Becerra of California to become the Trade Representative. For those of us who have the audacity to hope that the protectionist rhetoric of the Obama campaign would transform into the common-sense reality of the Obama administration, this was a troubling development. Becerra voted against CAFTA and opposes pending trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea. Years ago, he voted for NAFTA but he now says he erred.
This week, however, Becerra snubbed Obama’s offer. The rejection gives Obama a chance to correct the mistake of having turned to Becerra in the first place.
The president-elect must make sure his administration is committed to American exports. He’ll need a person of special talents---the number one being pro-trade--- to serve as our country’s trade ambassador in these challenging times.
The World Bank recently projected that in 2009, world trade will actually shrink, for the first time in a generation. Separately, the Copenhagen Consensus has argued that the successful conclusion of the Doha round of trade talks will deliver billions of dollars of economic benefits to the developing countries--without costing American taxpayers a penny in foreign aid.
Our next Trade Representative must fight economic contraction rather than surrender to it. With the right kind of leadership, trade can become a tool to improve our current economic lot.
Now it’s up to Obama to make an appointment that rivals the soundness he displayed in picking Vilsack.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org