Will Obama’s second term bring food system wins — or more of the same?
13 Nov 2012 7:52 AM
While Grist gamely speculated on what a Romney administration would have meant for food and farm policy (short answer: nothing good), we haven’t spent all that much time considering what an Obama second term will look like. His win didn’t exactly leave us shell-shocked, but even so, I best make up for lost time.
When Obama was first elected, food reformers dreamed big. As Michael Pollan wrote just after the 2008 election in his open letter to the next “Farmer-in-Chief,” Obama had an opportunity to make agriculture less fossil-fuel dependent, re-localize food systems, and rebuild America’s food culture.
But those pleasant dreams dissolved in January 2009’s cold winter light. First came Tom Vilsack as Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary — not a disastrous pick, but disappointing for many critics of agribusiness. And then, after unsourced reports held that sustainable agriculture leader Chuck Hassebrook’s selection as Vilsack’s deputy had been quashed by unhappy farm-state senators, president-elect Obama seemed to respond by putting forward one traditional agribusiness nominee after another to populate food and farm positions in the administration.
This clutch of appointments — which included former pesticide lobbyist Islam Siddiqui to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, former Monsanto executive Mike Taylor as the FDA’s food safety czar, and biotech proponents Roger Beachy and Rajiv Shah as the USDA’s research chief and head of the State Department’s international development agency, respectively — still grates on food and farm activists’ nerves. One notable exception — indeed the great triumph of reform — remains the appointment of sustainable agriculture advocate and experienced D.C. bureaucrat Kathleen Merrigan as Vilsack’s second-in-command.
Now, it’s not entirely fair to hold the president of the United States fully responsible for many of these appointments — he’s relatively uninvolved in appointments below cabinet secretaries (with the possible exception of the heads of major non-cabinet-level agencies like the FDA). And this is good. Would you really want the president micromanaging agency staffing? These appointments were disappointing nonetheless.
As Obama’s first term wore on — despite Michelle Obama’s aggressive initial push on her Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign — it became far more “business as usual” in food and farm policy than reformers had hoped.
But most of the administration’s worst decisions didn’t come until the aftermath of the disastrous 2010 midterms, during which Democrats lost the House and the Tea Party become a real political power. And the timing couldn’t have been worse. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) took the House speaker’s gavel just as the administration started to focus on the 2012 reelection campaign. And no sooner had the House Democrats handed over power to the GOP than the FDA refused to take action on BPA.
Then the White House overruled the USDA’s proposed compromise on genetically modified alfalfa, allowing it to be grown with abandon. Soon after, a powerful meat industry reform was stopped in its tracks. And the hits kept on coming as the White House scaled back the Federal Trade Commission’s junk-food marketing restrictions and delayed implementing the Food Safety Reform Act. Meanwhile, the first lady scaled back Let’s Move and shifted the focus — at least for the time being — from diet to exercise.
It was also around this time that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago and Obama named former Commerce Secretary William Daley as his new chief of staff. To many shocked progressives, Daley’s only qualification appeared to be that he had been a top executive at JP Morgan Chase. Daley was appointed in January 2011, just as these decisions started to come down — admittedly a time when the totality of the Democrats’ 2010 election shellacking was still being keenly felt.
Here’s where things get sketchy. There has only been a little reporting on Daley’s day-to-day involvement in the first-term Obama administration. What we know is that Daley’s appointment came at the start of the Obama administration’s campaign to make nice with the corporate sector in general and the banking sector in particular.
After the administration moved on banking reform and cheerled an attempt to pass a climate change bill, the banks and corporations saw Obama as Private Sector Enemy No. 1. Whether Daley had any real authority or not is very much open to question. It may be that he was nothing more than the public face for this new “corporate-friendly” White House, which was actually conceived by the Obama brain trust made up of David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and David Plouffe.
Either way, Daley effectively oversaw the White House’s strategic retreat on a series of decisions perceived to be unfriendly to corporations. And food reformers weren’t the only ones disappointed; environmentalists witnessed a similar pullback in the administration’s efforts to rein in polluters and set new environmental regulatory standards.
Fast-forward to today — November 2012. Daley resigned from the White House almost a year ago and reelection is no longer on the presidential to-do list. How much will things change?
The administration has clearly erred in its assumption that putting guys like Daley in charge would do anything to moderate corporate rage. It didn’t the flood of anti-Obama super PAC money poured down anyway. Yet the administration survived.
With the corporate Sword of Damocles no longer dangling above it, my guess is the administration will return to a more reform-minded position. I’ve also heard rumors the administration will renew its push for junk-food marketing restrictions.
As for the USDA, my expectation is that Tom Vilsack will stay on — he has hinted he’s willing. With this year’s farm bill process still incomplete, it would be a clear case of switching horses midstream — which is never a good idea. I would also expect that his deputy, Kathleen Merrigan, will remain in place, in order to build a permanent infrastructure for the support of local and regional food within USDA through her Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program and other below-the-radar efforts.
I’m not expecting miracles, however. It’s possible that some more obscure initiatives like the EPA’s ongoing safety review of the common (but toxic) pesticide atrazine will end with a slightly more restrictive result. Had California passed its GMO labeling ballot measure, I might have suggested that the USDA would take up the issue — but I imagine that’s off the table for now.
On the bright side, I do think that the days of corporations sneezing and the White House catching cold are over. Meanwhile, with the House still in GOP hands, Obama probably understands that the federal agencies he controls will determine much of his second-term legacy. And, at the very least, this year’s campaign showed a newfound willingness to strike a more combative tone with Republicans.
In her latest column, Maureen Dowd observed that in 2008, “Obama lifted up the base with his message of hope and change.” This time, she added, “the base lifted up Obama, with the hope he will change.” The president has a pile of food-related rules, regulations, and initiatives that have spent the last year sitting on desks awaiting action. As I see it, it won’t take long for him to show us whether he will.
Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. His writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.