The most telling Cabinet nomination that Barack Obama will advance once he assumes the presidency on January 20 — and from a long-term standpoint perhaps the most meaningful one — will not be his selection for secretary of State, secretary of Defense, Treasury secretary or attorney general. Obama, constrained by circumstance and the demands of official Washington, is set to fill those positions with predictable players from the usual D.C.-insider lists.
The pick that offers the most insight into where Obama will lead the country is his selection the most misunderstood position in the Cabinet: secretary of Agriculture.
The Department of Agriculture is, to be sure, misnamed. Ever since Abraham Lincoln evolved what had been a subdivision of the Patent Office and then a section of the Department of the Interior into an independent federal agency that the 16th president referred to as “the people’s department,” the department has been about much more than just farming. And that is only more so today, as the agency deals with everything from food safety and the spread of organic farming to buy-local food initiatives, rural development, food and nutrition programs in urban areas, and overseas aid.
The USDA is a key player when it comes to energy policy, both because of the rise of biofuels and because of the increasingly adventurous grant-making by its Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program.
The USDA’s Forest Service administers almost 300,000 square miles of national forests and grasslands.
The secretary of Agriculture is, as well, often a definitional player in trade debates — as the question of how the United States supports farmers remains an essential one when it comes to forging trade agreements and engagement with the World Trade Organization.
With a $97 billion annual budget and roughly 110,000 employees — more than the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy combined — it is one of the largest non-defense agencies in the federal government. And its hand is everywhere, with thousands of county extension offices spread across every state.
Bill Clinton and George Bush made what might best be described as “hack” appointments to the Department of Agriculture, naming political pals with limited real-world experience in contemporary farm and food debates. In Bush’s administration, in particular, the job of the secretary of Agriculture has been to promote the agenda of corporate agribusiness with regard to trade policy and the lowering of food safety standards. As such, there is a lot of repair work to be done.