Tom Vilsack is going to be secretary of agriculture, hmmm … Let’s see, ethanol proponent, enthusiastic supporter of GMOs and biotechnologies, and political debtor to agribusiness. Yup, it seems clear that Obama really took Michael Pollan’s "Farmer in Chief" piece to heart. Short of actually appointing, say, Monsanto’s chairman, it is hard to imagine a choice less likely to make real shifts in our food system.
But of course, as Rod Dreher and Carolyn Baker point out, so far there’s very little from the Obama administration that should make us feel secure that he will shift the status quo. Ultimately, Hillary, Geithner and the rest of the crew mostly can be described as people who did things not as badly as George W. Bush and his Cabinet, but that’s hardly saying anything of note.
I was in college when Bill Clinton was elected president, and I was almost alone in my social circle in refusing to volunteer for him. I’d supported a more leftist candidate in the primaries, and despite my acute desire to believe that Clinton would offer some kind of radical change, I couldn’t quite shake the reality of his positions. The same is true of Obama, who, for example, wrote of dealing with the mortgage crisis in terms of the moral hazard of bailing out homeowners, but appears to have few qualms about bailing out banks.
I had precisely the same feeling during this campaign. I preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton, and there were genuinely moments of hopefulness in his campaign. But riffing on the late, great Molly Ivins: You have to dance with them that brung you. That is, Obama couldn’t possibly come to power without indebting himself to people who are more invested in the status quo than in improving lives.
In order to be the president many of us hoped Obama would be, he would have to be willing to betray many of the people who brought him and dismiss their hopes and investments in his future. This is no easy feat for anyone, and it is probably less so for someone who came so far, so fast, with the hand of so many.
But presidents are known by the company they keep — the reality is that no man can supervise all the elements of the nation alone — they depend enormously on appointees. He will rely on reports and summaries from those he appoints, and those summaries will be given by men whose viewpoints are already formed. Vilsack cannot but describe our food system through the lens of his prior investments, and this will be disastrous.
In 2002, the Atlantic ran a story by Mark Bowden called "Tales of the Tyrant," which described what it was like to be a dictator and imagined how Saddam Hussein’s situation must lead inevitably to his downfall. The deepest reason, Bowden argued, was that everyone lied to the dictator all the time — they couldn’t do anything else.
It is true that our presidents don’t routinely throw out advisors who tell unpleasant truths, but even the best of them are surrounded, not so much by people who lie all the time, but by people who tell their truth as though it were "the" truth. To some degree, of course, this is inevitable — everyone’s worldview is shaped by their experiences. But it is possible to bring in a diversity of viewpoints, to find, in multiple versions of the truth, something closer to reality.
Obama has overwhelmingly chosen one, very narrow set of viewpoints — the viewpoints of people who have power now and to whom he is already indebted for his power. I don’t claim that there is no hope for Obama, but before he chose these people to surround him, there was hope that an ordinary man of integrity, hearing a range of viewpoints, might choose something different. Now, we have to imagine that Obama is an extraordinary man, one with the power to find unconventional paths to knowledge and the willingness to override the viewpoints in which he has invested himself. It gets harder to hope for change.