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Centrist Cabinet, Progressive President ?

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Message Jim Goodman

Who found it more difficult to get excited about an Obama presidency, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) or the progressive wing of the Democratic party? The DLC folks are riding high, calling themselves "The New Team" . The progressives came away empty handed.

Progressives assumed change would extend to Obama's Cabinet, but we never expected the change to be a reflection of the Clinton administration or worse yet the Bush administration. We thought change would mean, well, something different. New people, new ideas, economic reforms, leaving Iraq, new energy policies and a kinder face to the world.

The experts, the political junkies say Obama has loaded his cabinet with centrists. Progressives can only wonder why the world suddenly turned upside down. OK, it's his cabinet he can pick whom he wishes but his picks seem a bit out of place. Like Michael Pollen eating a Luther Burger.

History tells us unlikely people have sometimes done great things. Lincoln put his major rivals in his cabinet, that worked out well. Still, if Obama wants "a vigorous debate inside the White House" a few progressive voices would help mellow out the DLC chorus.

Then there was Obama's nomination of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. With a world food crisis, food safety problems and a growing demand for local and organic food, the time was right for a real change in national food policy on so many levels. Obama could have picked someone who was knowledgeable about organic farming, local and regional food systems, someone who felt more at ease mending fence or thinning carrots than sitting in a corporate board room. Someone who knew the difference between growing food and growing commodity crops.

I don't doubt Tom Vilsack is a nice guy who did a lot for Iowa agriculture. I know he did a lot for agribusiness, the chemical companies, biotechnology and large scale farming. Apparently his vision of better agriculture is bigger more intensive agriculture.

Is that Obama's vision of agriculture as well? Could be, it seems he's been pal'n around with big agriculture biotech zealots. Sharon Long (former Monsanto board member) and Michael Taylor (former Monsanto vice-president), are both on his advisory team . Obama did endorse genetically modified crops (GM) stating they were safe and had "provided enormous benefits to farmers," so, choosing the Biotechnology Industry Organization's "Governor of the Year" to head USDA shouldn't have been surprising, but come on!

Obama once said "The Good Food movement, the organic food movement is a wonderful opportunity for farmers to diversify. When they can diversify and get other crops going, we can in fact produce a healthier food. And more profits can go into the hands of family farmers as opposed to the big food processors and mega businesses. Then I think we are doing well for everybody." Michelle was quoted in the New Yorker as saying "in my household, over the last year we have just shifted to organic---".

GM farming and organic farming are not compatible, GM pollen drifts for miles and contaminates both organic and non-GM conventional crops. As GM proponents spread their technologies worldwide they push out small organic farmers and local food production. President-elect Obama isn't a farmer, in practical experience he has no way of knowing, so we need to tell him; there is a lot we need to tell him.

For one, it is difficult to have it both ways, disingenuous to want organic for your family while supporting the "mega businesses" that push GM on the world. If Obama's heart is really with small farms, local production and organic food, why a Secretary of Agriculture so closely allied with agribusiness?

The progressive community feels like we have been left "sucking hind teat" again. But progressives have always kept the vision alive, in spite of efforts to kill or cripple every progressive initiative. From single payer health care, to fair trade, to local food, our issues still resonate. We held against Ann Veneman, Dennis Avery and ketchup as a vegetable. We can't let up, even a timidly progressive agenda would be a step forward.

Obama is certainly no fool, could his cabinet picks unify Congress and actually effect progressive change by stealth? I hope so,--- I certainly hope so. As Obama so eloquently phrased, it "hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope." Paul Wellstone once told me, in Washington, ya gotta play the game. Well, the Games have begun. I'm waiting to see which side Obama plays for.


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Jim Goodman, a WK Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, is an organic dairy farmer and farm activist from Wonewoc Wisconsin. Encouraging local food production and consumption in the industrialized north, allowing the global south sovereignty in (more...)
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