Ag Secretary Vilsack: Democrats have a messaging problem in rural America

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks after meeting European Union Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos (unseen) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels June 17, 2014. A planned EU/U.S. trade deal needs to sweep away "non-scientific barriers" that prevent U.S. farmers from selling many genetically modified crops and some chemically treated meats in Europe, Vilsack said on Tuesday.   REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM  - Tags: AGRICULTURE POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTR3U9T5

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to our continuing series of conversations with outgoing members of the Obama administration.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is the last original member of the Obama Cabinet. He is also the former governor of Iowa. We began the conversation by looking ahead to his yet-to-be-named successor in the Trump administration.

TOM VILSACK, Secretary of Agriculture: I would say that, from an agricultural perspective, I have a little bit of concern, because some of the folks I don’t know are particularly supportive of the renewable fuel industry and the renewable fuel standard, which is a big part of certainly Midwestern agriculture.

And I’m hopeful that, when we see his ultimate selection for ag secretary, that we will see someone who is a strong advocate for renewable fuels, and what that means to Midwestern producers. And, for that matter, now, all over the country, we’re seeing more and more of the biofuels being produced from a variety of sources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, renewable fuels. Any other signals that you have seen him give as it affects agriculture policy, food stamp policy, a big part of what the department does?

TOM VILSACK: Well, on a positive side, his designee to be ambassador to China, former — or current Gov. Terry Branstad from Iowa, who I think is actually a good selection because of his relationship with President Xi in China and his longstanding relationship with the president, and the fact that Governor Branstad is a tireless advocate for agriculture.

So, there’s sort of a good news opportunity there, I think, especially with our number one trading partner.

Still yet to be determined about the impact on some of the poverty programs like SNAP. This is a very effective poverty-reducing program. We’re seeing reduced rolls in SNAP. So, it will be interesting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is food stamps.

TOM VILSACK: Food stamps, yes.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is proposed. I think a lot of people don’t understand the makeup of the SNAP population, of the food stamp population, 80 percent senior citizens, people with disabilities, children, and those who are actually in the work force working.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s interesting you should say that, because some congressional Republicans are talking about overhauling it. We have yet to hear, I think, from Mr. Trump himself on that.

TOM VILSACK: Yes, I think that there’s a misunderstanding.

The folks who are not — who are able-bodied, who are adults, who don’t have dependents, there’s a desire to make sure that they get to work and that they aren’t basically gaming the system.

But the reality is, they have a responsibility to either be involved in work or education, or they’re limited in terms of their benefits. So, I think it’s going to be a little bit more difficult than they might assume to overhaul that program. It’s a working program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The election, Donald Trump did much better with and among rural vote voters than did the Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Why do you think that is? What was it about — that he said and his appeal that wasn’t there on her part?

TOM VILSACK: Well, I think, actually, it goes far beyond one election cycle.

I think the Democrats have — we really have failed to be in rural America, in the sense of having our leaders spending time talking to folks in rural America. The president has been there, but other than the president and vice president, we have had not a whole lot of conversation in rural America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Including by Hillary Clinton?

TOM VILSACK: Well, Hillary Clinton was there during the Iowa caucuses, but I think the nature of a campaign makes it more difficult once you become the candidate.

But there’s a messaging opportunity here throughout, not just in the election season, but before the election, the opportunity to underscore what government is doing in a positive way in partnership with rural folks. I think it’s a messaging issue.

It’s being there physically, talking to folks, listening to people, respecting and admiring what they do, and then making sure that they understand precisely what the partnership is. I will give you an example.

Very few people know that my department is responsible for 1.2 million home loans since I have been secretary. That’s 1.2 million families that are living in homes in rural America that would never have homeownership, but for the United States Department of Agriculture’s programs.

We have to do more of educating people about the partnership that does exist between rural America and their government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it’s principally a messaging issue, that the policies are right? Because when you talk to voters in some of these areas, they’re saying they just think Washington, as it is today, just doesn’t even care who they are.

TOM VILSACK: Five — over 5,000 water projects have been financed by my department.

We have invested billions of dollars in economic opportunity. We have supported over 100,000 businesses, supporting nearly half-a-million jobs in rural America. The unemployment rate has been cut nearly in half. The poverty rate has come down faster than it has in 25 years.

The food insecurity rate among children is its lowest in history. Yes, I think it is a messaging issue, Judy. I think we have not done a good job of explaining to people in rural America what is actually happening, number one.

And, number two, we’re not expressing appreciation and acknowledging the contribution that rural America makes. Where does your food come from? Where does the water come from? Where does the energy feedstock come from? It all comes from rural areas.

Where does your military come from? Nearly 35 to 40 percent of the military is from 15 percent of America’s population living in rural America. It makes a tremendous contribution to this country. It just isn’t recognized.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do Democrats turn that around?

TOM VILSACK: Well, I think, first and foremost, showing up, making sure that we focus not just on elections, not just on presidential elections, but we begin the process of rebuilding the infrastructure of the party at the grassroots.

We begin going out to all those rural counties and begin having a conversation with rural voters and making sure that we hear their concerns, hear their complaints, and also educate them about what we are doing, making sure that we focus on state legislative races, not just congressional, Senate, governor, and presidential races.

I think it’s incredibly important that we have a greater investment in infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two final questions.

As you prepare to leave the Department of Agriculture, what do you think you have done that’s made the most difference?

TOM VILSACK: Well, the rural economy is significantly better. Children in this country will be healthier in the long run because of the changes we have made in school lunch and school snack programs.

Our natural resources, particularly our working lands, are more resilient. And more money is being invested in soil conservation and water preservation. Our forests will be in better shape if Congress does what it needs to do to fix the fire-suppression budget.

But I think we’re leaving the department, we’re leaving rural America, we’re leaving the country, and particularly the youngsters of this country in better shape than when we found them in 2009.

That seems to me to be the threshold question: Are things better or worse than they were in 2009?

I think people have to remember where we were in 2009. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. We had an unemployment rate in double digits. We had poverty rates soaring. We had kids who were food insecure.

Today, we have a lot less unemployment, a lot less poverty, and a lot fewer kids who are food insecure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in just a few words, what is the part of President Obama’s legacy that you think is most likely it to endure, given that we’re about to turn the executive branch over to someone who has very different political views?

TOM VILSACK: Well, I think President Obama is going to be treated very, very well by history in terms of his ability to save the economy.

And that’s certainly true in rural areas. Again, the unemployment rate is substantially reduced, the poverty rate is down, and in large part because of the investments that were made during the Recovery Act and thereafter, historic investments.

Record amounts of investment has been made in the infrastructure in rural areas. There’s still work to be done, no question. But we’re in much better shape than we were before, number one.

And, number two, I think, certainly, he has created an opportunity for America to understand that diversity is a blessing, diversity is a strength. It isn’t necessarily something to be concerned about. And I think, at the end of the day, we’re going to learn that this country operates best when it celebrates and surrounds itself and appreciates diversity, and doesn’t shun it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, thank you for talking with us in your final month or two of being in that position. Thank you.

TOM VILSACK: You bet. Thank you.

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